Hurricane Matthew traveled to the U.S., reminding me of things I’d rather not think about. My eccentric aunt lives in Louisiana. Back in 2005, she survived Hurricane Katrina. In the days leading up to the storm, I remember begging her to evacuate, but she wouldn’t hear any of it. She was close with her stubborn neighbor who wouldn’t entertain leaving, and she refused to abandon him. That man is now her husband.
We talked briefly a few days after the storm had come, just long enough for her to let me know she was alive. The following night, she called to check in again. It was the strangest conversation, ending in two nerve-fraying sentences.
She didn’t speak of winds, storm surge, and flooding. She breezed over the topic of weather altogether, simply stating, “I’m fine, everything’s fine. I’m fortunate. It’s nothing I can’t handle.” From that point, she rambled about her dog, her neighbor, and being in need of a good hot toddy. Before she hung up, she added, almost as an afterthought, “Oh – and it came. It took six that I know of.” Then she was gone.
I tried to dial her again, but she wouldn’t answer. Frustrated, I slammed my phone down onto the counter. I needed an explanation, but it didn’t look like I was going to get one. I scoured the house until I found the newspaper clipping I’d saved from a couple years back.
“Eleven Dead, One Missing After Record-Setting Tornadoes and Storm,” was the title of the article from the local paper. I nibbled on my thumbnail as I read through it for the hundredth time, eyes magnetically drawn to three names on the list of the dead: Norbert C., Mary H., and Carrie H. The single name on the missing list was Denise J. I omitted their last names for the protection of the town and its people.
Had it happened again? Had my aunt lived through the same terror I’d endured years before? What did that mean for the world? How many other towns were remaining tight-lipped, swallowing the same secret down like bitter medication? How many natural disasters had it visited, cloaking its presence in the chaos and destruction? What was it?
I’d lived through that record-setting storm. It swooped in suddenly and lasted for an entire evening. Tornadoes are eerie phenomenons, and not just because they have the power to kill. There’s something almost supernatural about them. Then again, I’ve had recurring nightmares about them since I was a kid, so that night was like a dark and horrifying dream given the breath of life.
I was gardening when it rolled in. The sky was dark, warning me of the potential for a storm. I only had three more Canna lilies to plant along the fence; I could beat it. I stabbed the earth with my spade, digging another hole. I plopped one of the bulbs into its new home and rested my hands on my thighs.
It was awfully quiet. I whistled, just to lend a sound to the air. No birds sang. No breeze blew. No insects chirped. I was uneasy. I got up off my aching, dirty knees and looked around. Lightning flashed across the ominous sky, lighting up the cotton field across the street from me. Forget the bulbs. It was time to go in and check the weather.
I plodded towards the house, my ears popping like I was on an airplane. I didn’t like the atmosphere. It was too calm. Why was it so God damn quiet?
Goosebumps tightened the skin on my arms. The air felt electric. You’re being paranoid. It’s just a storm, relax. A sound interrupted my thoughts – the tornado siren’s chilling crescendo. Then came another robust noise, like a train passing on the nearby railroad tracks.
I spun on my feet as yet another sound accompanied the shrill siren and deafening rumbling. Cracking. Slapping. Smacking. Thudding. On the far side of the field, trees snapped and splintered as a tornado chewed through the landscape. Thunder clashed, but it was overpowered by the volume of the enormous tornado and its violent spree.
I was transfixed by the awe-inspiring sight of it. It was beautiful and terrifying, and it was headed my way. You can’t stay here. You can’t be here. You have to seek shelter. Go.
My legs quivered. I craned my neck to see if anyone else was outside their house, mystified by this destructive force, but I was the lone audience member. It was at the road now, about to cross diagonally, directly to my house. It was close – too close for comfort. I no longer had the option to scurry into my basement. The only place left for me to go was the shed.
I jogged towards the metal shed, the wind whipping my hair around. At the door, I struggled to tear my gardening gloves off. Finally, my hands were freed, and I was able to pull the door open and slip into my refuge.
I knew the shed wasn’t safe. It was no match for the tornadic fury that was stomping all over my home, but I could think of nothing else to do but cower in the corner and watch through a dingy window. The roof was sucked up and spit out, and the walls caved in.
I don’t know how much time passed…two minutes? Ten? The tornado moved on, seeking something else to chomp on. I was safe, more or less.
The incessant noise continued on down the road for another minute or so before it faded away. The siren cut off a few minutes later. My body vibrated, and my heart pounded. I felt like my limbs weighed a thousand pounds. Outside of the shed, I lowered myself to the ground after a few paces. Thunder snarled as the charcoal-colored sky opened the floodgates, pouring sheets of rain down onto the rubble.
Soaked to the bone by the torrential rain, I floated through what was left of my home, surveying the destruction. My neighbors were out now. Some cried while others quietly digested what had happened. One marched over to ask after me, as my house was the only to suffer a direct hit. I assured him I was OK as he scratched at his head, obviously unsure of what to do or say.
A scream broke out. The good-intentioned neighbor sped back over to the small assembly of townsfolk. It occurred to me that someone may be dead or injured as I lifted my grandmother’s pearls out of a mass of splintered wood.
“SHE’S DEAD! OH, GOD, JESUS…HELP ME, SOMEONE!”
I was right. Someone was killed. I jerked my head to attention, shoving the necklace into my pocket. Mary was seated on her lawn, the rain slicking her hair against her face and neck. She cradled her girl’s limp body in her arms, rocking back and forth as she announced her tragedy to the swarm of stunned neighbors.
Her house was fully intact. Debris littered the yard, but the house was unscathed…so, what happened to poor Carrie? I got up the courage to walk over to the distressing scene.
“IT KILLED HER, MY BABY! MY BABY!” the woman moaned.
“Mary,” said a timid voice. “Honey, let me help you. Let me get you and her out of the rain.” It was Denise, the spinster who lived next door to Mary.
Mary sputtered and nodded. “Yes, I need to get her out of the rain.” Denise nodded at Norbert, who stepped forward and gently lifted the girl into his arms. The whole crowd gasped as the child’s face flopped into view; she had the appearance of an eighty year old woman instead of an eleven year old little girl. Her eyes were sunken in, her nose was clipped off, and trenches of deep wrinkles were etched into her gray skin.
No one spoke as Norbert, Denise, and Mary disappeared into Mary’s house. After they’d gone in, the crowd dispersed, more people openly weeping now. I barely had time to process what I’d seen before a noise like a car window rolled down on the interstate erupted. “Not again!” someone shouted in disbelief. “Get inside!” someone else commanded. I wiped rainwater out of my eyes and gazed out at the dark horizon, where another tornado had materialized.
As the siren belted its warning, I flung Mary’s front door open and rushed inside. I told the others about the second tornado, and we all ventured down into the basement, where a battery-powered lantern cast dim light onto us. Mary settled onto the floor and took her daughter’s body from Norbert. She whimpered quietly as she held the little girl close.
The wind howled ferociously outside; the ceiling shook and the windows rattled, straining against its tremendous force. Denise’s mouth was reduced to a thin line of deep concern as she lowered herself beside Mary. Norbert sat in a corner holding a spare flashlight and staring at his shoes, as I paced the far side of the dank basement.
“Surely it will all be over soon,” Denise said.
“Saw on the news there’d be severe weather all night. Might as well get comfy,” Norbert said.
After a short impregnated silence, Mary whispered, “It’s coming back.”
“We know, honey, but we’re safe down here,” Denise assured her.
“No one’s safe. No where’s safe,” Mary replied.
I shivered. I couldn’t imagine the pain and shock that Mary was feeling, but her behavior was starting to disturb me. She rocked back and forth, back and forth, her dead eyes unseeing in a flash of purple-blue lightning. From somewhere in the room, there came the constant drip drip drip of leaking water.
I resigned to sitting after Norbert switched on the battery-powered AM/FM radio he’d found on top of a box of Christmas decorations. The weather forecast reaffirmed what Norbert had said. The meteorologist told people to stay hunkered down; a rare series of tornadoes and severe storms was hitting the area hard.
I was lost in thoughts of insurance claims, Carrie’s mysterious death, and the curious bout of dangerous weather when I saw that Denise was now mimicking Mary’s rocking. I met the troubled eyes of Norbert, who had noticed it, too.
“It’s coming,” Denise mumbled.
Nonchalantly, I increased the distance between me and the other women.
“What’s that, Denise?” Norbert asked in a soft tones.
“She said, ‘it’s coming.’ You’ll feel it, too,” Mary answered.
I bit my lip. I thought about going up to assess the weather, but the storm sounded intense, and I was worried about more tornadoes, so I stayed put. Every so often, I could hear the clatter of debris.
The nasty whispering began right after something big smacked into the side of the house. Denise was in Mary’s ear, lips moving non-stop. Mary was motionless, squeezing her daughter to her chest. Norbert cleared his throat as his eyes bounced between me and the women. “It’s here,” Mary said.
“Uh, Denise?” I called, dismissing Mary altogether. Denise ignored me. “Is everything OK over there?” The whispering stopped. Denise slowly faced forward as she and Mary commenced rocking in unison.
The walls felt like they were closing in. My shoulders tense, I rested my head on the wall behind me and shut my eyes. A few minutes later, Norbert shouted my name.
“What – what is it?” I asked. He pointed at one of the windows of the basement.
“Something was out there,” he said. His thick eyebrows were sharp angles on his forehead.
“What was it?”
“I don’t – I could’ve been seeing things – yes, it must have been my imagination,” he answered, barely managing to convince himself.
My eyes skipped over to Denise and Mary, and my heart lodged itself into my throat. Denise was still rocking, but Mary was frozen. Her eye sockets were hollowed out, leaving empty black holes in place of her watery brown eyes. Her skin was a greenish-gray color, and her pruny lips were split apart in a jovial grin.
I didn’t react as Norbert gasped loudly. “Mary! Denise, what happened?” he yelled. Denise giggled. “It came,” she explained. Then, she got on her hands and knees and crawled right up to Norbert, until her nose was only about an inch away from his. “You’re next,” she told him.
Norbert gently pushed her away and jumped up. “We gotta go! I can’t stay here any longer!” he declared. Denise, stretching catlike on the ground, rolled her head around in circles.
I hopped to my feet. “Norbert, calm down -”
“No, you didn’t see what I saw out there! I feel like I’m suffocating – we can make it to my house, I know we can. Please, come with me!”
Denise cackled and flipped onto her back, kicking her legs in the air. “He’s so funny, Mary – isn’t he a hoot?” Mary’s grin seemed to agree.
“OK, let’s go. Uh, D-Denise, are you coming?” I asked. Norbert side-stepped around her writhing body and sneered at me. “No. Not her. She stays,” he said firmly.
“Go, go, go, before it’s back for Norbie. Not me, though, I’ll stay. Yesss, sssir, I’ll keep Mary and her child company. I don’t mind,” Denise said. The light of the lantern flickered, and in the fleeting moment of darkness, the woman’s eyes glowed like a deer in the night.
I darted up the stairs, Norbert trailing close behind. As we ran, Denise called, “I can still get to you at ole Norbie’s, ya know! NO ONE’S SAFE. NOWHERE’S SAFE. You heard the woman!” Maniacal laughter followed us up into the house.
Outside, Norbert’s flashlight swept over downed trees and random objects that had been regurgitated onto the lawn. The rain pelted us as we rushed to his door. We didn’t stop running until we were locked in his basement. .
“What the fuck is going on? Excuse my language,” Norbert asked, panting to catch his breath.
I didn’t answer. I snatched the flashlight from him and shone it at a window across the room. Grinning menacingly on her hands and knees, her neck bent at an impossibly sharp angle, was Denise. I’d seen her eyes glowing in the dark. I screamed.
Faster than she should’ve been able to, she scampered away, her neck remaining locked in that unnatural position. “NORBERT!” I cried out. When I turned the flashlight on him, I quieted. He was standing in the same spot he’d been in when I’d taken the flashlight, only now his skin was gray and folded into ripples of thick wrinkles. It looked like his skin was melting right off his skull. His eyes were shriveled, and his mouth was curled down in an expression of utter misery.
After it got to Norbert, I couldn’t stay in the basement. Stupidly, I rode out the rest of the storm upstairs, my only company a handgun that I’d found in Norbert’s nightstand. In the morning, his house remained standing. I contacted the local police, who, oddly enough, seemed unruffled by what I told them. That’s the last time I’d spoken about it until now. In fact, no one in town talks about that night, other than to say that it was, “One helluva storm. Made history, that one did.”
When the dust settled, a total of 11 dead bodies were found – nine of which were grotesquely aged. Two of the eleven had perished in the storm, but the autopsies of the nine were all inconclusive. Denise was never found. We try to forget, to leave the unknown buried with the victims. It’s our little secret, and we carry it together.
Is our secret really so unique? As Katrina’s death toll rose, I was left wondering how many of those unfortunate people were really killed by the storm. My aunt never would talk about it. It’s fine, though, because I never shared my experience with her, either. I understand. There are some things you want to go on pretending never happened, even when it’s impossible to forget.