My fifth-grade teacher Mrs. Ziegler made our class form single file lines on both sides of the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton hallway. We faced the Easter yellow wall that peeled in patches. Our backs faced the person across from us on the other side of the hall. We got on our knees and crouched, our noses inches from the dirty linoleum floor, our arms raised protectively over our heads. We’d do this every August in preparation for hurricane season. When I crouched and leaned forward, I was more worried about my plaid jumper sliding up and revealing my underwear than about the ceiling above us tearing open.
When I got home from school that year, I told my mother about the drill. “When the hurricane comes, I hope it’s a P.E. day. I’ll be wearing gym shorts.
”She laughed. “I’m sure you won’t be at school if the hurricane comes. You’ll be safe at home.” She smiled. “With us.”
That September, school was canceled. Hurricane season had arrived. My mother and stepfather John stayed home from work. We shopped for canned soups, beans, and vegetables; jars of peanut butter and loaves of bread; gallons of water; and AA batteries at Walmart. John nailed plywood over the windows. Everyone had a job and a place. This was our normal. Looking back, I realize a part of me looked forward to the late summer months every year.
A category four hurricane was on its way toward Palm Coast, our small beach town on the east coast of Florida. We hadn’t evacuated even though we’d been encouraged to. Hurricane Frances was just another hurricane we’d stick out together.
When the power went out, my sister Katie screamed. My mother told her to knock it off. Though I couldn’t see Katie, I knew she was smiling, sneaking a look at me. I stifled a giggle, trying not to egg her on.
I remember once John said to me that not everything Katie did was funny.
“Yes, it is,” I’d replied.
Katie was more startled than scared. We all were. We knew we’d lose power, but we didn’t know when. Katie and I checked under the kitchen sink for flashlights and the large lantern that cast a wide but dull glow. My mother searched cupboards for candles and matches. John rummaged through his unorganized computer desk looking for replacement batteries. This is what being a family is, I thought. It’s enduring what could be the worst together and making the most of what you’ve got.
We put a cluster of white tea lights on the glass kitchen table. They gave me just enough light to finish the essay for my sixth-grade language arts class, “Who I Admire Most.” I sat in the low-lit kitchen nook, thinking about the things I loved most about my sister. How not only could she make me laugh, but always wanted to. I thought about how, even though I was the little sister, she included me in everything she did with her friends. I sat there writing, my cramped hand moving across the yellow Steno notepad. Katie sat to my right stacking a full deck of cards into seven different piles. My mother stood in the kitchen concocting a hurricane snack: sticks of celery coated with creamy Peter Pan peanut butter then dotted with semi-sweet chocolate chips. John tinkered with his Canon DSLR in the dining room. A small flashlight beam danced around the ceiling every few minutes.
The wind rustled outside. Every now and then I heard a loud whistle. I pictured the trees in the woods behind our house whipping back and forth. Sometimes, if the wind really picked up, the aluminum around our porch enclosure made a loud bang. There were times in past hurricane seasons when we’d walk outside the next day to find parts of the screen enclosure popped in.
Though the bang made me jump, nothing stopped my hand from gliding back and forth across the Steno pad.
Hurricane Frances left us in the dark for a few days. We waited for the roads to clear of tree debris and fallen telephone poles so that FPL trucks, with their large white cranes, could fix each neighborhood’s electricity. One night, while we waited for the power to come back on, John found sparklers in a dining room drawer full of candles, paper clips, thumbtacks, and scotch tape. We lit them, waving the long, beige sticks in random patterns. We took photos with my mother’s silver Canon digital camera. At first, what felt like random scrawling turned into creating shapes. Sometimes the photo captured a single letter. We formed short words, like love and hello, fiery transcriptions caught in the air. We entertained ourselves for hours. A smoky aroma filled the house. It felt like Fourth of July in our living room. I felt a roaring in my body, the same way the fireworks at the beach sent echoing booms and cracks through my chest with each pop of color. But this roaring didn’t have to do with sound or decibel. It was warmth, a feeling of togetherness spreading through me the way liquid fills the volume of its container, flowing freely and completely.
We set bowls on the white tiles around our house to catch water that dripped from the ceiling. After Hurricane Frances passed through, John assessed the roof damage. Our charcoal gray roof shingles littered the lawn. When this happened, I’d always wonder if it might later interfere with our Christmas decorating. Every year John took Katie and me up onto the roof to help him with the lights. We’d crab walk and squat along the roof, clicking each oversized, colorful bulb into a pocket along the edge of the house. I loved being up there, peering over the edge, and waving to my mother below on the driveway, feeling much larger than I was. I’d watch the water gather in a dime-sized wet spot on the ceiling, deteriorate the plaster, and worry that Christmas decorating would be different that year, if possible.
After finding the leaks, we opened the front door and found our large oak tree uprooted from the ground. It came as a complete surprise. Over the sounds of whistling wind and rain beating down on the kitchen skylight, we didn’t hear it fall, not a crack of a tree branch or the thump as it landed. Normally, the oak stood in the middle of the front lawn, twenty feet from the door. It’d been there for more than ten years. Now it lay on its side as though it were taking a nap. The top of the oak’s branches and the green spindly leaves stopped a couple inches from my mother’s master bathroom window. We were lucky. I’d had friends whose families and homes made it through safely, but with scars and scratches, trees blown from their roots that had fallen onto their homes. Sometimes their branches punctured roofs and windows, bringing the outside damage, inside. We’d made it through, again.
We walked around the oak toward the stump. The roots were upended in the air, curled in a way that reminded me of Medusa’s black, snake-spiraled hair. The large hole made our lawn look hollow, almost desolate. The tree had also fallen onto the white lamp post at the edge of the lawn, obscuring it from our view. We were sure that it’d been crushed.
The next day, when John used an electric hand saw to cut the tree apart and lay in pieces at the end of the driveway for sanitation to haul away, we found the lamp post still standing, as if untouched. The light fixture—a fancy, white globe made of plastic—was cracked. Pieces of it lay scattered in the grass, but the light bulb beneath remained intact. It seemed odd or at least against logic. The large oak wrapped itself around the lamp post in a forced embrace, crushing the thick, plastic accessory attached at the top. But when we flicked the light switch the bulb was wired to, the light still shone.
When I think of hurricanes, these are the things that come to mind: waiting for the power to go out, my sister screaming when it did—not actually scared, but startled by the sudden flicker into darkness. I think of pulling out flashlights from the computer desk, standing them upright toward the ceiling so that they made a circle of light that spread upward and outward, my mother searching for candles in the dining room cabinet, blowing the dust off the tops of the small tea lights because they’d been sitting unused for almost a year. I think of settling into the dark and working on homework that was due when school resumed. It may have been canceled, but it did not mean the schoolwork couldn’t get done; it just meant it had to be done in an inconvenienced way. I think of taking breaks and playing the Memory Game at the kitchen table, flipping the tiles over until I found each cartoon picture’s pair. I think of playing card games at that table, where I first learned to play Rummy. I think more about the extra time spent with family and less about the unpredictability of a hurricane. The weather that thundered and howled right over us, but still felt a little bit like a ghost story.
I didn’t watch the news. I only knew the storms were coming because my mother and stepfather told me. Power outage, filling the bathtub with water, and stocking up on canned goods were all part of a routine whose stakes I did not fully understand. I helped pick out my favorite soups like Chicken and Stars and Vegetable Beef, but it always felt like another day of distracted shopping at the grocery store with my mother. The real preparation, the worrying—if there truly was any—was up to my mother and John: the adults. The comfort in our routine made it possible for me to forget what was happening outside.
Recently, I asked John about the hurricanes, whether my memories have failed me, or if there were in fact years, like 2004, where aside from a power outage, a hurricane seemed more like a severe thunderstorm.
“There was a lot of that, sure,” he said. “But there was also some calculating. Your mother and I asked ourselves, ‘Okay, what’s the latest we can leave? We have to decide, let’s say, by Tuesday afternoon. If we wait any longer, we’ll have to stick it out.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Oh yeah. I’d bet most people who stay through hurricanes are like this, even the ones who seem calm. They’re watching, they’re sweating. They’re a little worried.”
“I don’t remember ever seeing you and Mom like this,” I said.
“Even if the kids never saw it, there were moments where your mother and I asked ourselves, ‘was it a mistake to stay?’ We weren’t as complacent as you think.”
I thought about how easy these storms used to seem.
“Don’t get me wrong,” John said. We were probably never as worried as we should’ve been.”
“What do you mean?”
“There were some years we actually went outside during the storm.” He talked about walking out to our pool enclosure, how we’d sit on the wicker chairs on the patio and marvel at the power of the winds. How some trees would tip so far over—30 degrees maybe—they seemed inches from snapping. He reminded me of one year when the next-door neighbors were re-shingling their roof during hurricane season. Black tarp covered the rooftop. They’d either forgotten to take it off or realized it too late. During the brunt of a hurricane, all the tarp ripped off. “We just sat there,” John said. “Watching the tarp fly by, enjoying the show.”
In 2017, when Hurricane Irma hit, I was living in Georgia. Hurricanes had become a thing of my childhood. Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency. “This storm will kill you,” he said. “Prepare the body-bags.” I wanted to drive home. I wanted to be swept up in the comfort and security that I realized had become most pronounced in the face of this kind of danger.
It was the first hurricane since Andrew in 1992 that would cover the entire state. It changed its course five or six times before picking which coast it would lean toward. I told my family to come stay with me in Georgia. Deep down, I knew what they’d say before I even asked.
“We’re gonna wait it out,” John said to me over the phone. “At least wait a few more days to see where it’s headed.”
I remember the days following Kilauea’s eruption in Hawaii a couple years ago. One guy was immortalized on social media when he was reported saying, “I won’t leave my house until the lava is at my door.” Floridians are made fun of for their bullheadedness and naivete in much the same way when it comes to hurricanes. My family is no different.
“I have room up here if you guys need it,” I told John.
“We’ll let you know.”
When they didn’t come, I wasn’t surprised. The more I followed Irma’s coverage, the more nervous I became. At one point it became the strongest hurricane the National Hurricane Center had ever recorded in the Atlantic just outside the Caribbean. It moved with sustained winds of up to 157mph. I talked to my mother and John daily. My sister and her boyfriend made plans to stay with them during the storm. On the day they were predicted to get the brunt of it, I sat on the couch in my living room, working on my laptop. The bright afternoon sun filtered in through my white blinds. Though the air conditioning was on, my skin was sticky with sweat.
I sent a text message to my sister. Still have power?
Lost it about fifteen minutes ago.
Your phones better be charged! My sister had always been a quick texter, but the three dots that indicate typing seemed slow, teasing almost. I felt myself willing her to reply.
I didn’t have cable, but I refreshed my open internet tabs often, following news articles of Irma’s latest coverage and its updated path. Katie sent me a low-lit picture. I saw faint silhouettes of my mother, John, and my sister’s boyfriend Damian sitting around the glass kitchen table, each holding playing cards. A small stack was gathered in the center of the table. Tea candles lit up their arms and chests. I couldn’t make out their faces in the dim light, but I’d bet they were smiling.
My phone vibrated again. John is drunk off wine hahaha.
I looked at the picture and noticed four wine glasses on the table, my sister’s and Damian’s glasses filled with a red, John’s and my mother’s, a white.
I thought back to the phone conversation I’d had with my mother the day before. I sat on the top step of my apartment building stoop and asked her if I should come home or not.
“That’s up to you,” she said.
“I hate being away from home when stuff like this happens.”
“Well then do it. Just come home. You better leave soon, though. Your window is closing.” I looked down at the time on my phone. 5:30pm. The storm would pass through in less than twenty-four hours.
“Is that stupid? To drive toward the hurricane just so I can be with you guys when it hits?” I played with the shoelaces of my Converse and watched cars pull up to the red light in front of my apartment. I wanted to get in my car.
“No,” my mother said. Her pause was long enough for me to reconsider. A six-hour drive to my childhood home—a home without electricity—a warm, but brief visit, followed by another six-hour drive back.
“I guess I should stay,” I said. I stared at the photo my sister sent and texted her back. I bet you guys are playing Hearts.
My phone vibrated seconds later. How’d you know?
I smiled, wanting more than anything to take up the empty chair around the kitchen table.
Normally, when hurricanes passed through, it was about getting through half of the night or a quarter of the day. But since Irma covered more than half of the state, many of the outer bands kept circling, hitting the same locations twice, maybe three times, losing steam while inching north toward Georgia. About a day after texting my sister, I tried my mother’s cell phone.
She picked up and put me on speaker.
“How’d you guys make out?” I asked.
“We’re fine,” my mother said. At the same time, my sister shouted, “It was fun!”
“We still don’t have power though,” John said. “Almost every neighborhood here is out, so we probably won’t have any for a couple days.
“I’m glad you guys are okay.”
“Miranda, it was crazy.” I heard my sister’s voice again. “Last night I got up to get more wine, and the floor was wet. We realized water was coming in from the patio!”
I pictured our kitchen nook, how the white shuttered double doors lead out onto the patio. The Chattahoochee rock deck is a six-inch step down. I asked if the house flooded.“No, but it might’ve. We obviously weren’t paying attention,” John said. “We had to sweep water out of the patio and into the pool.”I pictured the four of them standing in the dark in ankle deep water, each with a broom in hand, sweeping water away from the house. “How was that?”
“Harder than you’d think.” While the three of them swept, John drained the pool into the lot behind our house. He knew he’d have to drain it, but not that early, not in the middle of the storm. “We weren’t really in danger,” John said, “but for the first time in a long time, I wasn’t calm either.”
It felt like another moment I had missed out on. A time the four of them could look back on and joke about. How John had drunk too much wine, how Katie had made a spectacle of the whole thing, how they swept water, a menial task that on any other day I’d complain about having to do. How Irma was something we could not share.
One hurricane season not too long ago, after the lights went out, my mother and I pulled out an air mattress from the attic, blew it up, and slept outside on the pool deck. It was late summer in Florida, the air damp and thick even with the windows open. We wanted to sleep closer to the breeze.
My sister was away in California. John watched us tuck the full-sized sheet under the bottom of the mattress and fluff our pillows. He looked at my mother and said, “Cool, I get a king bed all to myself.”
That night when my mother and I went to bed, we took turns lifting our bodies and falling back down, our weight puffing each other up and down on the air mattress. We were like children. We played on my cell phone. She nestled her chin into my shoulder as I showed her silly filters that made you sprout bunny ears or a mouse nose, ones that altered your voice to a squeak. She told me about the colleague at work who was giving her a hard time. For a moment, we’d switched roles.
I sweated through my cotton tank top and matching shorts. We edged the mattress out from under the patio and onto the pool deck so that when we looked up, the screen enclosure became our ceiling. I thought about how funny it would be if we woke up in the pool. It reminded me of the scene from The Parent Trap when the evil stepmother wakes up on her air mattress in the middle of a lake.
It was better than I remembered—sleeping in a power outage—because we had the moon, the stars, that earthy, musky smell from the oils of plants after a fresh rainfall, and of course, each other.
About the Author
Miranda Campbell graduated with her MFA in creative writing from Georgia College and State University. She freelance edits for Triplicity Publishing. She’s a sucker for tacos, The Office, people who can quote The Office, and a good used bookstore. Much of her inspiration comes from her favorite place—her home, Flagler Beach, FL. Her work appears in The Laurel Review, Hippocampus Magazine, Chaleur Magazine, littledeathlit, The Helix Magazine, Saw Palm, Dime Show Review, and others.