Emily peered through a rain-lashed cottage window at the storm raging outside. Gigantic waves were crashing right over the dunes that protected their little fishing resort from the Atlantic Ocean.
“Mama!” she cried, “Don’t you think we ought to get out of here? It’s a terrible storm!”
“Get away from that window,” her mother whispered from the couch. “If it breaks, you’ll be hurt by flying glass. I just can’t think what to do. My head hurts, and I feel so sick and cold. Pile another blanket on me, will you, dear?”
Emily did, then tried to think of what else she could do. The cottage was perched on a narrow strip of barrier beach separating Cape Cod from the ocean by about five miles of normally calm water. It could only be reached by a boat or by driving twenty miles from a coastal town. There was no electricity, telephones, or running water. This late fall weekend, Emily and her parents had driven out for one last visit to catch some sun and to close up the cottage for the winter. Emily’s dad had gone fishing in their boat before Emily or her mother were awake and wasn’t back yet. If he’d known how sick Mother is, Emily thought, he never would have gone.
Emily’s mom looked white and weak. “We’re the only ones on the beach today,” she said, her teeth chattering. “If we drove out, we’d be stranding your dad. Besides, if the storm is going to be severe, the coast guard will raise the storm flag. Look out the back window and see if it’s flying.”
Emily ran to the window that faced the mainland. She steadied the powerful binoculars on the window sash, focusing on the lighthouse and the Coast Guard station beside it. But the storm-warning flagpole wasn’t there. It must have been broken off by the wind, she thought.
As she stared through the binoculars, an enormous wave crashed upon the bank under the lighthouse. Great chunks of paving tore away and fell into the rolling sea.
“Mama!” she cried, terrified. “The flagpole is down, and the lighthouse banking is crumbling. The waves are awful!”
“Try the radio again,” her mother whispered.
Emily turned the dials of the battery radio again and again, trying to reach a station, but all she heard was static. The cottage smelled of damp wood, and it shook in the wind. The roar of the storm was unrelenting. She clutched Clover, her tiny white kitten, and tried not to cry. Her dad was out in this storm. What if his boat capsized?
Suddenly, as she stared out the window, Emily saw their car tossed into the air by a gigantic wave. “Mama, get up, get up,” she screamed. “The car is gone. We have to get out of here somehow!”
Her mother’s eyes were glazed now, and her lips were cracked. She tried to talk, then lay back and closed her eyes, instead.
Emily looked out the window again and could see nothing but water. The waves had beaten down most of the dunes and were reaching higher and higher. The roof of the house next door went floating past, tumbling end over end and finally breaking into pieces. “The Jenkins house is gone!”
But her mother was either asleep or unconscious. Emily began weeping with fear—great tearing sobs that shook her small frame and left her gasping for breath. “Heavenly Father, please help us!” she prayed.
Feeling a little more calm, she said aloud, “There must be something you can do. Think, Emily, think!”
As she looked around her for ideas, a thought slipped quietly into her mind. The old ship’s lantern! Maybe I could signal with it.
She ran into the tiny kitchen, pulled the stepladder over to the cupboard, and climbed up to get the big kerosene lantern that had once hung in a captain’s cabin on a clipper ship. Dad always kept it filled and trimmed for emergencies. It was sturdy and swung from a gimbal that kept it steady even in a high wind.
With trembling fingers she lit the lantern. Then she ran out to the back porch and looked for a place to hang it. The beam with the hook, the one that usually held her dad’s fishing boots, was too high for her to reach, so she raced back to the kitchen and dragged the stepladder out to the porch. Climbing up, holding the lantern carefully so that the kerosene in it wouldn’t spill, she hung it on the hook.
If anyone could see the light from across the raging waves, it would be the lookout in the Coast Guard station. But as Emily peered through the drenching sheets of rain, she thought, It’s not good enough. No one will know what the light means. I need something to make a signal with.
Searching the woodpile by the stove she found a small sheet of plywood. Frantic with haste, she scrambled up the ladder again and started passing the plywood back and forth across the glow of the lantern, creating three short, three long, three short intervals of light—SOS—over and over again. She tried to count out loud to keep it regular. The rain whipped her long brown hair around, sometimes stinging her eyes. Three short, three long, three short—would anyone notice? Could anyone even see such a tiny light across the miles of turbulence?
Soaked to the skin, shivering, and miserable, she kept on. Her arms trembled with fatigue. Her legs ached from trying to keep her balance in the howling wind.
Suddenly she heard a shrieking and rending above the constant roar of the storm and almost lost her balance. A whole house came sweeping by the porch, breaking up in front of her eyes. A refrigerator was flung into the air and landed almost at her feet. A propane gas tank went sailing by like a kite. The waves were now as high as the ground the cottage was on and pounding higher each minute. She could feel its timbers shaking. Numb with fear, she felt like a mechanical doll. Don’t think. Just keep moving the plywood.
Listen—what’s that? Over the roar of the wind, she heard the thrum of a powerful engine. Then she saw a searchlight coming closer, sometimes hidden by the surf, then reappearing. The Coast Guard must have seen her signal.
“Over here!” she called but knew that they couldn’t hear her. She didn’t dare stop signalling. What if the house blew down before they arrived? On and on she worked. Three short, three long, three short.
Then, miraculously, the boat was there. Voices shouted through the howling wind. Strong arms lifted her from the ladder and set her in the bow of the boat. “Check the house,” she heard someone cry.
“Clover, Clover,” Emily screamed when a wet ball of white fur was thrust into her arms. Soon her mother was carried out and placed in the bow under a canvas shelter. Engines roaring, the boat backed away from the cottage.
“You were great to signal like that,” one man shouted to Emily over the wind, wrestling the boat around to face the mainland. “We didn’t know anyone was out here. You’d better get under cover. We’re not out of this mess yet.”
Emily curled up close to her mother, whose eyes had fluttered open for only a moment while she was being rescued. Clover was buried under Emily’s arm, shivering and still frightened. Emily prayed for the man steering the boat—and for her father out somewhere in the storm.
Mountainous waves rose all around them. The boat reared and bucked and plunged. Emily glimpsed debris sweeping by—a chair, a green cooler, a door.
“There goes your house,” one of the men called. “There’s nothing left now but ocean—not even sand. We got you off just in time.”
“We’re almost there,” the pilot shouted many minutes later.
Emily peered over the canvas and saw a sight that she would never forget. Most of the boats anchored in the harbor were thrown up on shore, smashed and broken by the storm. The pier had been swept away, and the fish house was dangling over the water, swaying crazily in the wind, half its foundation gone.
Emily later remembered little of landing, thanking her rescuers, or riding to the hospital in a wailing ambulance. Sometime later, Uncle George gently shook her. “Wake up,” he said. “It’s time to go home.”
“Where’s Mom?” she asked sleepily. “Where’s Clover? Has Dad come back?”
“Your kitten’s in the car. Your mother’s in intensive care, and the doctor says that she’ll be fine. Your dad …” He shrugged and looked away. “He’s a good seaman. He’ll be OK.”
For five days and nights the storm raged. Emily’s mother finally came to stay with her at Uncle George’s, shaken and weak but a lot better.
On the fifth day, Emily’s father chugged into the harbor. He was starving, cold, and exhausted; his boat was badly damaged. He had thrown out sea anchors, he explained, and had miraculously ridden out the storm.
“You were so brave!” he told Emily, hugging her. “To think of signaling like that and staying with it so long! You must have been frightened.”
“I was,” she said, stroking Clover, “but I prayed.”
He held her close. “So did I.”