“I don’t want mac and cheese again!” Gracie whined while I plopped a helping onto her plate. She had a point; we’d had it four nights in a row. My cheque hadn’t lasted as long as usual and the week had been rough. I had to stretch our dollars as far as they would go. I couldn’t ask the Aberdeens for money again.
“How about if I add some hot dog pieces on there too?”
“Okay, Mommy,” she replied in her squeaky three-year-old voice. “But can we have peanut butter sammiches tomorrow?”
I chuckled. “You can have anything you want. Maybe we can even pick up a pizza!”
“Yay!” she squealed, throwing her arms straight up in the air, sending cheesy pasta airborne.
“Who’s my Doodlebug?”
Gracie was my perfect cherub – blond, ringlet pigtails, chestnut eyes and that one dimple on her right cheek. She was the essence of eternal hope and endless happiness. Even at that moment, watching her pierce the orange elbow pasta with her fork with such determination and joy, gobbling every bite even though I knew she’d rather have a proper home cooked meal, I couldn’t help but be enamoured with my little Doodlebug.
My childhood lacked luxuries, but Daddy made sure we never wanted for nothing. He worked three jobs so Mama could raise us herself, so our bodies were warm, our tummies were full and there was always a roof over our heads. When I found out I was pregnant at sixteen, I vowed that no matter how tough life got, my child would want for nothing, just like me. When Gracie was born, and she grasped my finger in her tiny hand for the first time, I knew I would sacrifice my life to care for her and keep her safe. But life had other plans. After Mama and Daddy died in that tornado, I had no one to help me raise Gracie and nowhere to call home. I didn’t know what our future looked like. Jason was useless. He even questioned if she was his, suggested he “wasn’t the only one.” Often times, I’d cry myself to sleep at night, wondering if we’d make it, if I would fail to protect her.
I was working at the diner, trying to keep Gracie’s belly full and roof over our heads, when I met the Aberdeens. They were an older couple from town that’d never had kids of their own. They came in for dinner one night and in a short time, became my friends. A few months later, they invited us to a barbeque at their house. That night changed our lives forever. That was the night they invited Gracie and me to live with them. Mrs. Aberdeen would babysit – free of charge, bless her heart – so I could keep working and give Gracie something better. We stayed with them while Gracie learned to sit, crawl, walk and talk. Then they gave us the trailer. We parked it on their land, and my baby girl and I called it home.
After I’d put Gracie down to bed, I washed the dishes, still humming the bedtime lullaby I’d sang for her. I had a job interview the next day that Mr. A had arranged for a receptionist job at the local clinic, with better pay, benefits and the possibility of a better future. It’s funny how we take tomorrow for granted.
I gave little notice to the leaves that flew past my window, but when the lawn chairs shifted from one corner of our yard to the next, I knew that something wasn’t right. High winds weren’t uncommon in our corner of Tennessee. Tornadoes were painfully familiar, so I knew when to turn the water off and listen. The windows rattled, and the wind howled like the red wolves up in the Smokies. When the lawn chairs went airborne, I closed my eyes and prayed for just a silent, windy night.
“Please God, not the alarm.” Our trailer had no storm cellar, and we’d have to drive down the road to the Aberdeen house to seek shelter. We’d done it many times – it was a stone’s throw away – but never in the middle of the night.
God wasn’t listening.
The sirens wound up and screamed into the night air, alerting everyone in town to take cover. Gracie’s cries came through the baby monitor as the alarm woke her. Then the lights went out. Billowing clouds raged in the night and shrouded us in sheer darkness. I relied on my memory to guide me through the kitchen to the utility drawer in search of a flashlight.
“Come on!” I rifled through the clutter I’d accumulated over the last year. “Where the hell are you?” As though obeying me, it found my hand, and I clicked the soft button on the shaft. Nothing.
“Dammit!” I’d let the batteries drain. I rummaged through the drawer for spares but it was then I remembered, I’d added AA’s to my grocery list for my next trip to the Easy Way. I placed my arms out in front of me and felt through the darkness as I ran down the hall in the dark, guided only by the sound of Gracie’s sobs.
“Mama? I’m scared!”
I scooped her up and held her tight. “It’s okay, Doodlebug. We’re gonna be just fine. Hold onto Mommy, okay?”
“Okay,” she replied through fluttering exhales. I carried her through the trailer in the dark.
Infrequent flashes of lightning provided us just enough light to find our way to the truck, but in between, we were running blind.
I buckled Gracie into her seat and tore down the road to the Aberdeens’. Dust built a wall around us and hail crashed into my windshield, spreading cracks like veins. Then the rain plummeted down with a force that made the hail seem like falling feathers. Gracie screamed in the back seat, clutching her faded teddy bear for comfort, but I could barely hear her over the racket on my truck’s roof. The Aberdeen house was only two hundred feet away, but it may as well have been on another planet. Thankfully, the road was a straight line, and I could find my way with my eyes closed.
But locating the house was the least of my worries.
The truck shook as I pressed the gas pedal down to the floor. The beast was coming. There was no escaping it. There was no fighting it. The best I could do was hope like hell we would get to the Aberdeens’ before the twister got to us. I had to fight to maintain my grip on the wheel and to keep us from veering off the road. I was no match for its strength. The passenger side lifted, and I was pressed against my door. I couldn’t free myself from the grip that glued me to my corner of the truck. Gracie wailed incoherently in the back seat, though I wouldn’t have heard her words over the clamour outside.
“Gracie, baby hold on! Mama loves you!” The world went topsy, and we went turvy, and the truck flipped over onto its roof. My head hit the window, and a blinding pain consumed me as everything went bright white. Warmth gushed from my forehead and ran down my face. Shattered glass rained over me and my left side seared from an overwhelming pain.
“Doodlebug, you okay?” She didn’t respond. “Gracie?”
Before I could turn to check on her, the storm made it clear it wasn’t finished with us yet.
The wind spun the truck around and then lifted us again. We crashed down hard in a ditch, and the impact battered the left side of my body. I tried to call out to Gracie, but my lungs tensed, and I only mustered a grunt. The ditch held us in place as the storm’s wrath descended, shielding from another thrashing. I released my buckle and placed my arms up over my head. I gave in to gravity and allowed my body to drop to the roof of the truck. My mind whirled in unison with the tempest outside.
Without warning, the rear window shattered when something flew inside, slamming into my shoulder. The furious monster would not stop me from getting to my child. I cradled my face as I fought my way to the back seat. The storm’s power was no match for the jolt I experienced next. Gracie wasn’t in her car seat.
“Gracie?” I shouted. “Gracie!” She wasn’t in the truck. The crash had broken her window. She must’ve been thrown from the truck when we flipped. I pulled myself through the open window but had to crawl back inside when the funnel made its appearance. I held onto the sides of the window and braced for its ferocity to pass over. It’s one thing to be under the protection of thick concrete as a raging twister dances overhead, but a direct stab from its vicious lance – well, that’s another thing altogether. That’s something no one can prepare for. The thundering roar of the merciless, bloodthirsty funnel was surreal. Its strength was unfathomable. My skin burned as though being torn right from my bones. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep holding on, but I would try like hell, even if it meant the death of me. My Gracie was out there somewhere and she needed me.
Then the branch flew at my face. I couldn’t move in time. My darkened world went black.
I woke up lying on the ground with beams of sunlight stroking my cheeks. Birds chirped, and the air was still.
“Gracie!” I brought myself upright in one motion. I looked down toward the Aberdeen house. It was gone, nothing more but a void of despair where my home once stood. I couldn’t worry about them just yet. I called out my baby’s name again and again but got no answer. Debris littered the ground as far as we could see. How would I find her? I ran over to a large piece of wall and flipped it over. I knew from the photos of my parents and Gracie still attached in their shattered frames, it was my trailer. And it was gone too. I ran to each large piece of debris, tearing it away with hidden strength as I searched for my little girl.
“Mama?” The sweetest sound I’d ever heard. She stood on top of a pile of rubble, clutching her teddy. I ran over to her and lifted her into my arms.
“Sorry, baby,” I said, releasing my crushing grip on her. I pushed her away to inspect for injuries. She was unscathed. Not even a scratch. Gracie didn’t even have dirt on her. It was like someone had lifted her out of the path of the storm and cradled her in a safe cocoon until it passed.
“Mama, I flew! I flew like a birdy!” Her eyes lit up with joy and her smile shone brighter than the morning sun. Elation couldn’t bridle my tears. It was a miracle. The storm had passed and was no longer a threat to my baby and me.
Then I focused my attention back to what had been the Aberdeen house, reduced to rubble. They were likely still hiding down in the depths of their storm cellar. At least, I hoped they were. I grabbed Gracie, and we navigated over our landfill to see if they were safe. Two wishes in a row were evidently too much to ask. Before we reached the mountain of debris, I saw his legs sticking out from beneath a pile of bricks. My insides seized and my belly lurched. I needed to set Gracie down; my arms weakened from the shock and I knew I might drop her.
“Doodlebug, stay here, okay? Mama’s gonna check something. Can you be a good girl and do as I say?” She nodded, but she knew something was wrong; I could see it in her eyes. I couldn’t hide the pain on my face, but I could shield her from the horror I was about to encounter. One by one, I threw the bricks from the pile. Mr. Aberdeen’s body was so broken, if it hadn’t been for the watch around his wrist that Mrs. Aberdeen had given to him the previous Christmas, I wouldn’t have known it was him. He didn’t have a pulse and his neck was ice-cold; he’d been dead for a few hours, at least.
“Oh, Stan. I’m so sorry.” I closed my eyes and wept for my friend. I said a prayer for his soul, though I didn’t have much faith at that moment. Why hadn’t he been in the cellar? I grabbed Gracie and went in search of Mrs. Aberdeen. I couldn’t lose her too.
“Please be safe.” I guess I thought if I wished it loud enough, it could be true.
“Where’s Gampa Bean?” Gracie asked as I carried her around the outer edges of the chaos.
“Doodlebug, he was just so special and amazing, God decided he wanted him to be an angel.”
“An angel? Can I be an angel too?”
Before I could answer, we came upon the cellar doors. With careful precision, we climbed over the ruins and approached.
I knocked on the wooden door. “Mrs. Aberdeen! Are you in there? Connie?” No answer. I closed my fist and pounded the doors. The doors weren’t locked. I climbed the steps into the dark cellar, but it was empty. “Oh, God. Connie, where are you?” I was sick at the thought that she’d been outside during the storm also.
I let Gracie walk alongside me as we took the road back to the main road. My body was a shell housing my shattered soul as I scanned the land and called out to my surrogate mother. We’d stop to listen for any movement or cries, but only the song of the birds above us responded.
I couldn’t deny the truth nagging at me; Mrs. Aberdeen was dead too.
As we approached the place where our trailer had stood, I had to stop. Tightness grew within my chest as helplessness consumed me. For a whole year, that trailer had been home. The Aberdeens had been home. We had nothing left. Our family was gone and our lives were disseminated. What were we going to do? Where would we live? How would we survive?
I couldn’t put on a brave face for Gracie anymore. I rested my hands on my knees and released my tears. My knees weakened, and I fell to the ground.
I wiped my face dry. “It’s okay Doodlebug. Mama just needs a moment.” I dusted myself off and brushed the hair out of my face. I realized my head didn’t hurt anymore. My wound was gone and as I wiped at my face, it was clear of blood.
“Mama, what’s that?”
I looked at Gracie and followed her pointing finger to where our truck had landed. It was still there, damaged and warped from its flight. But two little legs, covered in pink pyjama pants stuck out from beneath the wreckage.
“No!” I cried out. “Stay there, Gracie!” I ran over to the truck. It couldn’t be. Then I saw her teddy bear, tattered and stained with blood. My eyes moved to something in the field a few feet away. The epiphany should have been a clear one to accept, but even as I stood there, looking at my beaten body, I couldn’t comprehend it. We hadn’t survived the storm.
“Janey,” said a man’s voice behind me, sending my heart leaping from my chest. I turned to see Mr. and Mrs. Aberdeen standing on the road, each holding one of Gracie’s hands.
My stomach sank and I ran over and grabbed them in one big embrace. “Why weren’t you in the cellar?”
Mrs. Aberdeen stroked my face as a tear streaked her cheek. “We wanted to make sure you were safe. We tried to get to you, but…we didn’t have enough time.”
“We’re all safe now,” said Mr. Aberdeen as he reached his hand and took mine in his grasp. “Come, dear. Let’s go home.” The four of us walked down the road together, a family reunited. As we approached the site where their house had fallen, I glanced back to where mine and Gracie’s bodies lay. Before my eyes, all the debris and our corpses vanished and made way for the brightest grass I had ever seen grow on our land. Wildflowers sprouted from the earth and speckled the field with vivid colours. When I turned around, the Aberdeen house stood before us, more beautiful than I’d ever remembered it. The sun’s light beamed down, focusing its light on the roof, adding a glimmer to everything. My eyes followed the steps up to the front door, which slowly opened as we approached.
“Hi, Janey.” It had been years, but I could never forget that voice.
“Mama?” She and Daddy stood in the doorway, smiling as I climbed the porch and threw my arms around them, tears soaking my cheeks. We stood there holding each other, feeling the contours of each other. It was like walking into a long desired dream. Years had passed since I’d seen their smiles, since I’d felt their protective touch, but it was as though no time had passed. Yesterday was stolen from us far too soon, but tomorrow was ours. Arm in arm, we walked into the house together. The twister had thrown our lives into chaos that night, but there was mercy in its wrath. My family was together again.
And we were home.