On August 29, 2005, the winds howled like legions of dislodged haints. Rain raged. Mother Nature’s percussion band drummed a sound that Amber would remember for the rest of her life.
Amber, so named for the color of her light brown eyes, clung to Mrs. Henry’s side, whining with some innate knowledge that Katrina presented a danger to her. The family huddled down in the family room of the old house dreading the storm.
Amber lifted her pretty, blonde head and beseeched Mrs. Henry to make the horror go away. In the past, Mrs. Henry kept things secure and under control.
Rain in New Orleans was nothing new. Normally they celebrated its cooling off the hot, steamy world of prolific green plants mixed with asphalt or cement and sizzling the humidity’s haze. Tonight was no celebration.
The single flashlight illuminated the darkness in the family room as the power died. The trees started falling on the lines causing the power poles to crash with cannon like roar.
Amber perceived the unusual tense smell of fear, and it heightened her own sense of helplessness. She wiggled free because the scent upset her. She started up the tall stairs and stopped at the baby gate.
“Amber, no! Come back here!” Mrs. Henry screeched as genuine panic overpowered her voice. The steps creaked out a lament as Amber turned around refusing to come down the stairs. She sat with deliberate eyes begging everyone to follow her.
Mrs. Henry stood up to retrieve Amber when a loud crash broke through the house as the storm ripped the window out of the crumbling brick wall. Surging water boomed its might against the family as well as the storage area under the stairs, ripping the curtain, which hid its contents. Dank water poured in so fast that it swept them against the far wall.
Mrs. Henry’s son, LaVon, couldn’t swim, so she took hold of him as they flailed about in the swirling water, desperate to keep their heads above it. LaVon was safe for the moment, but Mrs. Henry knew that she couldn’t swim them both to the safety of the stairs as the rushing water rose above the furniture, cardboard boxes of old toys and the Christmas decorations floated up from the silver aluminum tree.
With all of her might and strength, Mrs. Henry tried to inch her way over to the top of the gun cabinet so she could stop treading water. Amber watched, and started howling her own fear as she clung to the safety of the top step, just above the water level. Mrs. Henry started to swim towards the spot where the gun cabinet should have been, and LaVon slipped out of her grip, quickly going under.
Terrified she tried diving under the water to grab him, but the whirl pooling water sucked her down to the floor. Her need to live did not overcome her desire to save her son. She groped through the black murky water trying to find him, but felt nothing. She fanned out, feeling along the floor, and decided to try to save herself as her breath tightened in her chest.
Kicking off the bottom as hard as she could to make it up the nine feet to the surface, she banged her head into the edge of an old oak table that was stored down there. It stunned her, and reflexively she opened her mouth to cry out in pain. The water rushed in. For a minute, she was conscious of her own impending death, convulsing as the oxygen rapidly depleted from her brain.
A steady stream of bubbles betrayed the water’s deadly secret. Amber shuddered and cried out for the family. Instincts dictated that she stay on the step. About a half hour later, the water quit pouring in, and the once rushing water turned into a black lake.
Night fell and Amber managed to doze. She curled up as best she could, balancing on the top step, fearing that she’d fall into the water.
Her stomach growled and unable to hold in anything, she wet herself. Debris floated in the water and the stench overpowered each breath.
Amber’s sensitive nose detected an odor that was so rancid it could only be death. Humidity and heat clung to her so that she started panting, even though she hadn’t exerted herself.
Her stomach ached now, and thirst drove her to the receding water. Without any regard to its dangers, she lapped up some of the putrid liquid. Immediately, she threw up and watched the foamy mass float away from her. She didn’t know it but that saved her life.
She shivered in darkness for well over a twenty-four hour period until the water receded enough for the opening in the wall to display a sense of time. Daylight streamed in through the hole and she could see clear skies. The sun was getting hotter and hotter, increasing the repugnant smells around her.
She lay on that step for days, too afraid to leave. The water started dropping enough that more and more steps were available to relieve herself, preventing her lying in her own filth. Hunger and thirst burned inside her gut like a branding iron on the flesh of a young calf.
Days turned to nights and back to days again. As the fourth day broke, she saw first LaVon’s body, and then Mrs. Henry’s body pop up, slowly floating over to her. She didn’t understand the finality of death. She understood dying as something to fear, but death itself, was incomprehensible to her.
She licked their faces with her own kind of special kisses, ignoring the fowl taste of their skin. Something connected inside her. She threw back her head and wailed a loud cry, her own hurt, pain and fear releasing a long, drawn out sound, much like a train whistle at a crossing.
By now, she was thin, dirty and weak. Torn between the stench of the dead bodies and the possibility of food she so desperately needed, she sniffed them. After drinking the water and getting sick from it, she shunned Mrs. Henry and LaVon. The bodies drifted back to the opposite wall again.
Something caught her attention. She weakly lifted her head off the rough damp step she hugged.
She turned her head and pricked her ears. A strange humming sound grew louder and louder, increasing her anxiety. She heard human voices calling out for people as they stopped at each house. Stranded she whimpered soft yips to let them know she was inside.
“Did you hear something at this house? Let’s see what we can find.”
A man in waders climbed through the hole in the wall and eased his way towards Amber. She pulled back in fear because she was overwhelmed. She actually tried to bite the hand that reached for her. That was the only thing she knew to do.
“Hey, now, take it easy. I’m not going to hurt you. You sure are pretty. I know you’re scared. You just have to trust me and let me get you out of here and find a foster home for you. You are too nice to go to the shelter. I’m going to keep you with me until the rescue service can find you a new home.”
The kind voice soothed her so Amber relaxed and grinned. Her eyes lit up and she shook with excitement. He reached for her and she willingly allowed him to hold her and maneuver her out to the boat.
“We have two floaters in this house. Make a note that its number twenty-six of grid two.”
His partner grabbed hold and helped put Amber in the boat between two other people whom they had rescued earlier. One, an old man with gunk forming a water line on his shirt, helped pull her aboard. The other was a young girl who sat covered with a blanket. Although an ice-cube melting day, she shivered from being in shock. Amber eagerly accepted the new adults. To show her appreciation, she licked both of them and wagged her nub of a tail.
“I think she’s going to be fine and not going to cause any problems when we get some more people in the boat,” the man in waders said. “I’ve never seen this color or eyes like hers. She is the most beautiful Doberman I’ve ever seen. Sweet and friendly too. And that coat. Have you ever seen a blonde Dobe?”
“Naw,” his companion answered. “I’ll bet she ain’t full blooded. Betcha she’s got some Weimar in her. Don’t matter though. She’s a real nice dog. We need to call the animal shelter and get the breed rescue association to take her. I don’t want them to lock her up. She’s too nice a little lady for that.”
“Sounds good to me.”
“Can I pet her?” the young lady asked.
“Sure. Just ease your hand out and let her sniff it first.”
The young girl stopped shivering and allowed Amber to sniff her thin wrist. Amber wasn’t shy at all and reached towards her with a paw almost like trying to shake her hand.
“Can I have her, please?”
“No ma’am, sorry, but we have to follow protocol and either contact a breed rescue to pick up the dogs or take them to the shelter here in New Orleans.
The Southern Doberman Rescue was headquartered down at the municipal animal shelter. A team of volunteers were out in boats trying to save any and all dogs found swimming in the water or trapped in a home. It was a hot, thankless and dangerous job.
Jenny manned the table that kept up with the number of Dobermans being brought in. There were already six inside. Eight volunteers worked nearly ten hours trying to save the dogs. Each of those Dobes would go home with a volunteer who would foster it and would have it vetted.
Scared, hungry and thirsty the dogs mourned their lost families, and some suffered wounds. They cowered back in the far corner of their cages not making a sound. Kennels normally rang out with loud barking, but the lack of noise inside magnified the seriousness of this rescue. These animals had been traumatized into silence.
Jenny heard the familiar puttering of a boat coming around the corner and knew that another life had been saved. Many times dogs and people had been found in their houses dead. The living creatures were what mattered now. The dead, noted and taken care of by different crews, transported the bodies to refrigerated trucks, which hauled them to the morgue.
She was astonished when the boat pulled up, and a man held the collar of a fawn colored Doberman.
“We found this here dog on a step above the water line in our section of grid two. She can be adopted because her owners died in the storm. She’s mighty friendly. Can someone take her home today?
“You bet!” Jenny exclaimed. “I want her. I’ll take her. Don’t you worry none; she’s going to be in great hands now. Thank you for saving her.”
Because she reminded her of a miracle that the dog managed to survive when her owners didn’t, she was going to rename her Katrina but call her Trina.
Jenny hated kenneling the dog until they started back home but understood that for Trina’s own protection caging her favored her odds of surviving because so many scared dogs would be in a defensive, attack mode.
She just hoped her big red female Doberman at home would accept this dog. She normally didn’t foster but this was an emergency and the volunteers had agreed to foster as many dogs as they could handle to keep them out of the shelters.
Jenny had a crate in the back of her SUV. She took Trina out of her kennel and gave her a dog biscuit. She figured that getting her into the crate would be difficult. To her surprise, when she opened the back door of the SUV and then the crate and said, “Crate,” the dog jumped right up into it. Jenny realized someone had trained and taken care of this dog.
She knew she’d have to let her grieve over the loss of her family. Jenny drove back to her home in Eight Mile, Alabama. Trina lay down and didn’t make a sound. She was going to be a good second dog. Only problem, would Flame let her join the family? Flame was twice as big as Trina. If they tied up, Flame could do some serious damage.
Jenny had crated Flame to protect the house while she worked the rescue today. She left Trina in the car and let Flame outside in the back yard. Both the house and the back yard belonged to Flame. The front yard would be neutral territory. She called Flame to her and gave her a pat and a Bacon Bite. She put a leash on Flame and walked her out the front door. Flame perked up because she knew something was up for her to go out that door.
Jenny used the remote to pop the back door and walked Flame up to the car. Trina jumped to her feet and the hackles went up on both dogs. Trina wrinkled her nose and opened her mouth wide, showing her teeth. She growled. Flame retaliated with a snarl followed by a deep-throated bark. She must have conveyed something Trina understood because Trina backed down and waited patiently for Flame to sniff the crate and Trina.
Both dogs sniffed each other and then wagged their tails. Acceptance! Jenny exhaled a long, low breath. For safety’s sake, she was not going to let them out together until they had a full night in the house.
First she let Flame out back again and leashed up Trina and took her for a short walk to do her business and stretch her legs. She brought her into the house. She took the crate apart and set it up beside Flame’s crate. She let Trina explore and gave her something to eat and some fresh water. She knew that Trina would gulp the food down so she put small amounts in the bowl to control the speed she’d eat the kibble. Dobermans notoriously develop digestive problems, especially if they eat too fast. Next, Jenny gave Trina a bath. Flame’s barking made a racket outside.
Flame was at the back door jumping so hard against it that it sounded like the double paned glass was going to give way at any minute. She was very jealous of Trina getting so much attention.
Jenny told Trina to get in her crate and she did so like a lady. Next, she let Flame in who ran straight to Jenny for love and her treat. Jenny had her favorite and let her roam around the house with her for a while. She clung to Jenny’s side and never once walked over to check out Trina.
After about thirty minutes, she remembered a strange dog was in her house and walked over to the crate. Establishing being the alpha dog, she snarled at Trina who quietly lay in the crate acknowledging she was beta. There would not be a fight for dominance.
Jenny was relieved. Having Trina to dote on along with Flame would be good. It might deceive depression into leaving. Much of the time, Jenny was severely depressed.
They’d diagnosed her bipolar. Her sole income was her Social Security Disability check. Depression plagued her too many nights. Sometimes, even her sleeping meds failed to stop the lies depression often played over and over in her head. The Doberman rescue had done wonders to lift her spirits.
Christmas always depressed Jenny. It had been right before Christmas that her husband left her. She’d been alone for three years, her son and the dogs filling the emptiness in her heart. And now this Christmas: the letter announcing that her disability benefits would end in January.
The letter plunged her into panic and despair. She couldn’t work—its strain made her medications stop working. She’d attempted suicide several times in the past when overwhelmed. Now, how would she pay her mortgage, utilities, and her medicines?
She had a son who lived close by. He, too, struggled to make ends meet. She longed to help him, could not and this added to her displeasure. The dogs were her solace, helping her to keep back the demons of suicide. If she could not pay for her medications—what next?
Prior to being diagnosed in 1995, she’d taken out a ten-year level term life insurance policy. It had the usual suicide clause and was going to expire in January. She wouldn’t qualify for any more life insurance. That money could help her son and provide for her dogs as well. Feeling trapped, unable to envision any way to sustain herself, her son or her dogs, Jenny began contemplating ways to beat the suicide clause. She knew the depression was eminent as she thought of ending her life.
The phone rang. It was Mark, her son. “Mom, how are you doing?”
“Oh, pretty good. I’m a little depressed. My usual holiday blues.” She twirled the phone cord between her fingers.
“I’m afraid I have some bad news. Carla and I are going to her parents for the holidays. Are you going to be okay with that?”
“Sure,” she lied. A week before Christmas, she knew she wouldn’t face this holiday alone.
Trina and Flame knew something was wrong when Jenny didn’t get out of bed. Hours went by and she still hadn’t moved. There was plenty of water in their dish but their insides were bursting with needing to relieve themselves. They had no other choice but to go indoors. They exchanged worried looks as they soiled the floors. They would welcome a scolding if it would bring her back to them.
Flame was at a total loss but Trina had that smell locked into her memory forever. She smelled death. Still unable to understand it, she conceptualized never seeing that person again.
Hunger stabbed at both of their stomachs and a stench filled the house. Flies congregated on Jenny’s body and maggots were already crawling out of her mouth. By this time, the water bowls were empty but the toilets provided drinking water, for a while.
Jenny’s hand hung down over the bed. Trina went to grab her hand to move her and the skin was so thin that it drew a very thick blood. She licked the black ooze as it was food.
Each day, both dogs broke the rule and curled up on the bed beside Jenny. They noticed her soft body got very hard then it softened up again. The smell was getting stronger and stronger. Jenny’s body was nude and both dogs could smell that although that was Jenny, it smelled like meat.
Their hunger kicked them into survival mode and they soon tore into her, going for the stomach area first. The body fluids helped them with their thirst as well as their need for meat. The smell of the liver attracted them to bite through the now nearly transparent skin.
The dogs started on one of Jenny’s legs when they heard the door open, and Mark entered the house yelling Jenny’s name
When his eyes took in the half-destroyed midsection and the flesh torn from her left leg, he started throwing up. At first, he feared his own life after witnessing the grizzly scene. But Flame and Trina wagged their tails to see him again because they knew him from previous visits with his mom.
Knowing his mother’s suicidal tendencies, he realized the dogs hadn’t killed her and had only done what they needed to for survival. He’d promised his mother that if anything happened to her, he’d take care of them. He’d keep his word.
Later, he called the coroner, and since the body had been mutilated, the cause of death couldn’t be established. For lack of a better reason, they put down Jenny had died of a heart attack when they discovered her bottle of heart medication was empty.
Mark discovered an insurance policy that made him the beneficiary. He was torn between the horror of the death and the relief the insurance money would bring. He could not escape the recognition that his mother had deliberately set out to rescue him, that the dogs had been essential to her plan, and that she had known they would come through for her.
Unable to sleep because nightmares awakened him, he cried out for his mother. What would he do with them now? Love them or hate them for the rest of their lives? Trina watched him, sensing his mood, and brushed her head against his hand to be petted. He stared into her amber eyes and knew the answer.