The broken trees have turned brown and been trimmed away from roads and houses. The debris is almost cleared. But, I don’t think my head’s been clear since that day. What have I said? Nothing, I hope. Maybe I just wanted to be quiet all along. I haven’t told them anything. Have I?
“How are you?” the nurses ask.
“Fine. I’m okay.” I don’t offer any more. I just lie in the hospital bed and look at my feet and listen to staff wheel patients up and down the hall.
The weather service says a strong frontal boundary formed and moved in a line progressing east from Louisiana to Virginia. The automated voice says storms along this line are capable of producing severe thunderstorms with quarter-size hail and sky to ground lightning with possible tornadoes. Remember, lightning is one of nature’s most dangerous killers, the voice says. The weather forecasters aren’t always right. It was sunny the day before and that morning, downright warm, in fact, especially for April.
Listening to the radio Grace said, “This talk of the weather is tiresome. You can’t change it.” She was right. Like always. But the weather can change you. The Bible says red in the morning, sailors take warning. It wasn’t red that morning though.
The tornado watch is in effect until nine p.m. eastern standard time for counties in east Tennessee including Hamilton, Bradley, McMinn… The automated voice droned on.
“You have time to work this morning,” Grace said.
I thought she was talking about working in the vegetable garden, because it wasn’t time to fool with the tobacco patch. I told her I was planning on cutting down those two dogwoods behind the deck.
“You dunce. I mean, make that flower bed by the walk.”
She was talking about the flower patch by the mailbox and in between the walk and our front porch. We got the red, hourglass shaped bricks two days ago, and they were still piled up by the driveway. Lowe’s didn’t have those Japanese maples, so I hadn’t even started trying to build the flower garden.
“You can put the flowers in and then the stone. The grass is already dead. Just till it up. They say it’s going to rain.”
I told her I aimed to cut down the dogwoods.
“That won’t do. It’s a holy tree,” she says and I’m too stupid to know it.
I put on my gloves, gassed up the tiller, and started turning up that grass. I wished she would let me be. I never do anything right.
I’m not stupid though. The petals are in the shape of a cross. The blossoms in the middle are a thorny crown. The pink dogwood is blushing for the shame of shedding innocent blood. The weeping dogwood is a heartfelt cry against using the tree to crucify Jesus. Ours were the pink dogwood not the weeping.
When we have a decision, Grace says we should pray about it. We didn’t pray about cutting down the trees. I don’t pray much and that’s why I’m bad. I’m not worthless though. I think the Bible says something about that, but Grace must not count that verse.
The voice says that a tornado warning means that a tornado has been spotted and has touched down in your area. Take shelter in the lowest level of your house away from windows under a sturdy piece of furniture, just like that.
“Just finish that area,” Grace said.
The rain began and night fell in the middle of the afternoon. The tiller wouldn’t roll backwards. “Roll it forward into the garage, you idiot,” Grace said. The wind was whipping her dress and hair around like the rapture. The sky was rolling and rumbling.
I threw the machine on the ground when I heard the roof cracking. I scooped her up and carried her as I stumbled with her in my arms through the house toward the bathroom. The porch disappeared behind us with a ripping sound and rain and pieces of wood flew inside. The roof lifted away and the sound of a thousand trumpets made me cover my ears. Grace screamed. My feet got light, I felt the floor moving, and before I knew it I was spinning. Grace flew from my arms. When I opened my eyes again everything was still and quiet, and Grace wasn’t screaming anymore. I could not believe I was alive. I had been spared. The house was nothing but a pile of boards and carpet and sheetrock.
That’s when I heard her moaning and saw the pile moving. She was not dead.
“I’m stuck,” she said. “My leg. It’s broken.”
She looked like a bug trying to squirm free from a swatter. Behind the rubble just one of the dogwoods was left standing. The other was laying crossways over the pile Grace was under.
“You’re such an idiot,” she was saying. “Get me outta’ here.”
I tried to make out how she was stuck, but all I could see was how dirt had turned to dark mud as it ran down in streaks on her cheek.
“Pry me out with that board, you goon. Oh…”
I picked up a two-by-four and limped over to her. She was looking up at me. I bashed her head in with one swift stroke and tossed the board beside her. Then I went behind where the house used to be and sat under that tree. Rain was dripping through, but I was already soaked anyway.
Two more storms passed but not as bad as the other. I just sat there. I didn’t even look up when the rescue squad finally showed up. I didn’t say anything. They just took me to the hospital. They said I had a bump on my head. They were really nice. They say it’s a miracle I’m alive. I guess it is.
I tell them I don’t remember the day of the tornadoes. The Bible says that by grace we are saved, not of ourselves, but it is a gift of God. I guess so. It is a gift of God.
T.D. Smith teaches high school English, and I’m currently finishing my MA in English Creative Writing at Wilkes University.
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