Black Estrangement • Vol. XLV Fiction |

Which Turtles Saved Themselves

Granny kept a closet for when we would die. It was a linen closet halfway through our hallway that reeked of mothballs and once-freshly-washed towels. And stacked on every shelf, still, were Paw’s clothes. Granny said it didn’t matter that Paw had passed six months earlier—he was still her husband of forty years. It was still her duty to safeguard his belongings.

Granny had known for a week that Tuesday would be bad. According to WTOK, we were due the biggest tornado to ever hit Lauderdale County. Maybe the whole of Mississippi. It was a long time ago. The summer of ’98. This would be our first big storm since Paw died. We needed to stay alive. At least I thought so.

The weatherman said we should prep our basements. We didn’t have a basement. The only basement on our quiet block belonged to Mr. Meckel, who lived across the street. Sometimes after he went fishing, me, Granny, and C. J. would walk to his house, and he’d show us the turtles he happened to catch in his net. He always told us that if there was ever too bad of a storm, we could hide in his basement with him, since we were now without Paw. Before, we never needed to go to his basement. When tornadoes loomed, Paw would huddle over us in the closet, his body draping us like a coat. With Paw gone, we felt naked.

Before Paw passed, we used to do weekly tornado drills. We were practicing how to survive. Granny and Paw would come down the hallway, whistling like storm sirens, and me and C. J. would laugh at their feigned apocalypse, then run in the closet and hold our breaths. After Paw passed, we stopped the drills. The closet stayed shut. But sometimes, at night, I heard Granny tiptoeing into it.

I missed Paw all the time. Every day of those last six months without him. But that Tuesday, with the storm coming and our lives on the line, I missed him more than ever. I missed the black freckles speckling his face. The wet snap of his mouth when he clicked in his dentures. How we’d sit at the kitchen table and eat salted watermelon. How we’d sit on the couch and slurp Coke floats. How we’d peel hard-boiled eggs, dipping gray yolks into puddles of Tabasco. I missed how Paw kept a jar of cha cha and scooped the vinegary concoction onto every meal. The way he’d sit my little self on his back and crawl around the floor like a pony, neighing for special effect. How, at night, I’d peek through his door after bedtime and spot him sitting on the bed, head bowed in prayer. But most of all, I missed the way Granny used to be. Since Paw passed, it was like she’d caved in on herself. All she ever did was watch the Weather Channel and stare out the window. She gave me and C. J. fewer baths and never got us haircuts. I grew a shiny afro that matted my scalp like a rug. C. J.’s Pull-Ups stunk more than ever. And Smokey, Paw’s sluggish German shepherd, got bald spots on his back. All Granny did now was stay in bed. She only came out her room to make us meals. I missed the old Granny, the one who wore red lipstick and smelled like witch hazel. The one who slicked Vaseline on my face before school. The one who smiled. I didn’t know where that old Granny went. I thought maybe Paw took a piece of her with him when he left.

……

That Tuesday started out cool for Mississippi. Sixty-five degrees. Air thick with pollen and humidity. Clouds stretched like cotton. Morning meant cartoons and dew and quiet.

After breakfast, the sun didn’t come up. The sky stayed gray and cloudy. The world was in black and white, and the trees twitched like they weren’t sure about the future. A tall, skinny poplar tree loomed over the side of the house. Its leaves swayed over the roof. On the hottest summer days, Paw used to lounge in that poplar tree’s shade with cups of sweet tea. Granny would refill his pitcher with ice and Lipton powder and give it a tinkling stir. And from the patio, I’d watch him kiss her cheek in thanks.

We stood in the kitchen tugging at Granny’s red housecoat, the one Paw bought her for Christmas the previous year. When she had modeled it for us, playfully sashaying around the tree, Paw whistled and said she was beautiful. That was the first time I saw Granny look shy.

I pulled at her housecoat. “Granny,” I asked, “is there really gonna be a tornado?”

“I hope so, Richie,” she said, and pinched my cheek.

Outside, the clouds were black and atomic, cruel and uncelestial. I hugged her and smelled witch hazel. She bent. I whispered in her ear, my lips skimming her earlobes, “Are we gonna die? Should we go in the closet?”

“No closet for us this time!” She winked, strangely excited, then asked what we wanted for lunch.

“BLTs,” I said and wondered why we needed to eat before we died.

I returned to our cartoons, staring at the TV ahead. Our kitchen had two parts: a tiled area for cooking, then a carpeted breakfast nook with a wooden table and TV. To the TV’s left sat a glass door, which opened to a patio and fenced backyard where Smokey spent his sullen days. Me and C. J. sat on the floor, below the TV, craning our necks up at the screen. We watched Little Bear splash into a pile of water. C. J. laughed and rested his head on my shoulder. I smelled bacon.

“Look,” Granny said as we chewed our sandwiches. “Who knows what’ll happen? This fixin’ to be the worst tornado Lauderdale County ever seen!”

……

After lunch, me and C. J. stood at the kitchen sink and watched Granny wash our plates. Salt caked my tongue. Half to us, half to herself, she said, “And if it happens, it is what it is.”

I leaned on her hip. She was soft like the dough she’d stretch for the Amish bread she used to make once a month for church, full of yeast and raisins. We hadn’t gone to church since before Paw passed, but Granny used to love going. She’d get dolled up and wear a frilly hat and take us for ice cream after. I burrowed deeper into her doughy hip. She took a hand from the water and palmed my head. Her wedding ring bubbled with soap. Thunder cleaved the sky.

“Granny,” I craned up at her profile. “Don’t we gotta go to the closet? It’s bad out.” I pointed out the glass patio door. Fat birds flocked from treetops.

“Richie,” she said, staring into the sink. “Don’t you wanna go to heaven?”

Silverware clanked. I didn’t know what to say. All I knew about heaven was that it was where Paw moved. I didn’t exactly know where heaven was; it could have been down the street.

……

The rain began after we rinsed the last plate from lunch. Me, Granny, and C. J. then sat at the table and looked at the TV. Rain filled the ditch along our house. Vicious winds pummeled trees. In the backyard, patchy grass turned to mud and trees shed their leaves. The poplar tree got to balding and Smokey sulked into his doghouse, flopped his ears onto the plastic floor, and watched us inside folks through slabs of rain.

“Granny,” I said, clutching C. J.’s damp hand under the table. “Even Smokey’s scared. I think we should go to the closet. Paw wouldn’t want—”

“Relax,” she said, kind of flinching, then rose and disappeared down the hallway.

Granny returned to the table with rollers, a tub of Doo Gro, a comb, and a mirror. She flipped the channel off our favorite cartoon about our favorite turtle, Franklin, studied the weather report, and spun her gold-dyed hair into rods. The weatherman said, “Seek cover.” Granny smiled. Then she turned the channel back to Franklin. On-screen, I watched as he fell back onto his shell and waved his arms and legs.

“Granny,” I tugged her arm. “Let’s go to the closet. Or to Mr. Meckel’s.”

“Hush,” she said, snapping a roller.

I did as I was told.

Me and C. J. sat like this, trying to concentrate on our cartoons, as the sky spat rain and Smokey howled at the sky and Granny greased her golden hair.

On-screen, Franklin wobbled back onto his turtle feet.

……

At three, Granny set chicken out to thaw for dinner. She made me stand on a stool before the sink and wash the greens. The leaves felt like Styrofoam. I stood on my toes and looked out the window above the sink. The sky was a black hole. Wind flipped the red flag on our mailbox up and down, and I heard the shrieking metal of a faraway fence. I looked through the blur of rain and wind across the street and saw Mr. Meckel’s pink bungalow.

Granny rose, washed her hands free of hair, and tied on her apron.

“Best start the last supper!” she laughed from the stovetop, tipping greens into a pot.

……

An hour passed. The rain worsened. Me and C. J. kept watching cartoons as Granny cooked. I looked left out the patio door and saw sublime lightning. I heard anvils of thunder. I turned to my right and saw steam fog Granny’s glasses as she stirred the greens. The salty smog made me angry. I wanted to scream at Granny: “We are gonna die and you’re fixing dinner?”

“Granny,” I said from the table, holding tears in my eyes. “Please let’s just go to the closet. We not even hungry.”

“Oh, hush, Richie. Watch the television.” She pointed to the screen.

I took C. J.’s hand and started to run out the room. Granny threw a wooden spoon at my back. The pain bolted my feet to the floor.

“Get your behind back to the table,” she hissed.

I said nothing, just sat back down with C. J.

C. J. sucked his thumb as the TV entranced him. Thunder lashed. A poplar tree branch fell into the yard. As rain drenched the wilted leaves, I thought of other ways to escape.

“Jesus!” Granny ran toward the table, pointing out the patio door. “Look at Smokey!”

She grabbed an umbrella and her Polaroid camera, let herself out onto the patio, and sloshed into the backyard, where she bent and took pictures of Smokey in his doghouse. She came back inside all haggard, sealing the umbrella, saying, “This the first time I ever seen him in his house! I can’t wait ’til I can tell him. I took pictures to prove it!”

“Tell who, Granny?” I asked.

She laughed, then pinched my cheek with a face that was weary and eager.

Sirens. We heard sirens. They sang a tune of doom. Ceaseless wails assailed our ears as the cartoons switched off and on came an automatic weather report. Granny left the kitchen and stood beside us at the table. She wiped her hands on her apron and studied the TV. A frantic weatherman pointed at a cartoon map of Lauderdale County. Granny was smiling and adjusting her rollers. I hated her then. How could she want to die? What was so good about heaven, anyway?

“Boys!” she said, after reading some letters on the screen I was too young to string together. “The weatherman say they seen a funnel cloud. This the real deal!”

C. J. got out his chair and crashed into my arms. We sobbed. Our eyes were sullen skies. I heard Smokey howl from his flooded home. I saw him take angsty steps out of it, the water obscuring his paws. He ran to the back porch. Granny let him in. His nails clacked on the tile and his fur dripped with water. He yelped and squealed and ran in panicked circles before flopping on the kitchen floor and curling into a slick black ball. Me and C. J. held each other. I didn’t know where my body ended and C. J.’s began. He smelled like pee, but I didn’t care. We spun and cried and made our own little storm, fear at its eye.

“Granny,” I spoke for the both of us, since C. J. couldn’t talk yet. “Why don’t we go cross the street to Mr. Meckel’s? He got a basement. Oh, please Granny. Can we go?”

Granny swatted at us, saying, “Cut it out!”

She unstuck us and plopped us into our chairs at the table. She took the remote and flipped to another station. Cartoon Network. She smiled at us, then went back to the kitchen.

On-screen, Courage the Cowardly Dog shivered before a red-eyed monster. The monster smiled a big, dumb smile. It reminded me of Granny; the way it grinned in the face of terror. The way I could barely recognize it as human.

I wished Paw was there. He would snatch that stupid smile off her face.

“Watch the television,” she said, tightening her apron. “Sit and watch television, boys. Quit all that carrying on. We gon’ be OK.”

I watched her wash the chicken with vinegar. I watched her fill a cast-iron skillet with oil. I turned, touched C. J.’s slumped shoulder. And I did as I was told.

Granny toyed around in the kitchen. I heard crackling oil. C. J. clunked his forehead on the table. I draped my arm around his shoulders and went on looking at the television. I wondered what Paw would do now. He wouldn’t let us watch TV at a time like this, that’s for sure. We would already be in the closet, his big body shielding us. He’d be on my back like a turtle shell, whispering in my ear in his raspy voice that he wasn’t gonna let nothing happen to me. My eyes twisted into knots. A hot coal burned my throat. I wished Paw would come back. I had heard that heaven was a somewhat decent place, but I didn’t understand why he couldn’t leave it. Why he couldn’t just come back.

Eight months earlier, just before Paw got sick with the cancer, there had been a big thunderstorm. It wasn’t a tornado, but he was cautious. So he ushered us into the closet. And because he loved Smokey, he brought him inside, too. All the bigness and blackness of him. Me and C. J. laughed as Paw ushered Smokey in through the patio and his nails clacked down the hallway. We laughed as he ran circles inside the closet. We laughed when Paw flogged him for whining. “Cut it out!” Paw had said to Smokey, who whimpered and napped until the storm passed. Paw and Granny only ever fought over little things, like if she picked unripe watermelons or bought the wrong strength of Tylenol. He’d yell a little bit, and she’d yell right back. And me and C. J. would laugh because they sounded funny when they yelled, because they loved each other so much. But I could see Paw yelling at Granny now. I could see him really yelling at her, his voice booming. My throat felt like the greens boiling on the stovetop. Granny walked out the kitchen, not looking at me. She walked right past us and down the hallway. I thought she was getting the closet ready. I thought we were gonna live, after all.

After ten minutes, Granny came back from the hallway in a fresh coat of red lipstick, the kind she used to wear when she’d go with Paw to play the slots at Pearl River. And her apron pocket bulged. I studied the square bulge. She entered the kitchen and kept making dinner like she’d never left. She lifted a piece of chicken and dipped it in flour. She set it in a pan of oil. Static floated out the kitchen, matching the sound of the rain. She spoke over it all.

“Boys,” she said. “Y’all wanna go to heaven?”

“Where’s your heaven?” I asked her.

She pulled a photo out her apron pocket. The photo was a black-and-white image of a younger version of her and Paw. She usually kept that picture framed on her nightstand. She wore a lacy, long-sleeved dress. He wore a suit and had hair. “Why don’t you ask your granddaddy!” she said, smiled at the photo, then put it back in her pocket. “That picture,” she patted the bulge, “is our ticket in. We gotta show God who we lookin’ for.” She took tongs and flipped the chicken. The thunder rolled long and deep, like the time Paw took me and C. J. to Bonita Lakes and we joined hands and spun our laughing selves down a hill. All we ever did, since Paw left, was sit in the house. I tried to remember the last time Granny took us anywhere besides school or church. At church, she used to kneel for a while, her frilly hat leaning as her chin tucked into her chest. She’d sat that same way at Paw’s funeral, six months earlier. She didn’t cry a tear, just sat in the front row and prayed, looking all forlorn. At the repast, I heard her say under her breath, while surveying the hall full of black-clad bodies, “Oh Lord, why don’t you take me, too?”

Granny set before us plates of greens, chicken, and cornbread. We three sat at the table with the sirens, rain, and thunder crashing into our ears. Smokey crawled under the table to lick up our fallen crumbs. I snuck him a piece of crisp chicken skin. His tongue was warm on my fingers and the slobber was like slime. We bowed our heads and lifted our voices above it all. We told God He was good. We told Him He was great. We thanked Him for this food. And we said Amen.

As we grabbed our forks, the power cut out.

The TV blinked, then went as black as the sky. Long strings of lightning splintered the clouds. C. J. wailed. Granny split a chicken breast in two.

The sirens accelerated. The whole house was dark. C. J. cried harder, but Granny told us to keep eating. So he stuffed greens in his quivering mouth.

After we finished eating, Granny rose in the dark, shadows slicing her body. I watched her light a candle and do the dishes with trickling tap water. In the pitch-black kitchen, she scrubbed our plates. Me and C. J. stayed at the table, not looking at each other. Smokey hid beneath it, whimpering and sniffing our toes. I studied the crumbs that haloed the ghost of my plate. Spindles of greens. Flecks of brown chicken skin. I imagined eggs and gray yolks. Amber Coke floats. Watermelon rinds. My eyes twisted tighter and hotter. I heard the sink splash. Granny hummed a happy tune as she washed. I plugged my ears. But I could still hear the sirens. I could still hear her song.

A crack of thunder shook the house and rain splashed the patio door. Smokey eyed outside, seeming grateful for his newfound shelter.

“Granny,” I shouted, “I’m scared.”

“What?” She spun to face me, twisting from the sink.

Our eyes locked, and I lost my breath. I didn’t recognize her. Her eyes were wild. She looked like one of those hyenas we’d seen at the zoo in Jackson the previous year. Paw took me and C. J. and we oohed and aahed at the animals we’d up until then only seen as animations. I tried to push that memory out of my head—all those things I missed about Paw. The Coke floats. The watermelons. The freckles. They all made my stomach hurt. At the zoo last year, Paw had held our hands so that we formed a trio. C. J. had just learned how to walk and took baby steps up the pathways past the elephants and bears and meerkats. I looked up and asked Paw—the sun silhouetting his face—how the animals got food in the zoo. If they weren’t in the wild, how did they eat? How did they survive?

“They feed ’em,” Paw said. “They well taken care of, Richie.”

“Do the animals,” I asked him, “got mommies and daddies?

 “Yep.” He shifted his head, unblocking the sun. Orange rays lasered my eyes. “All animals got ’em. Even the ones in the zoo.”

“Where are their mommies and daddies?”

“Somewhere in the wild, maybe.”

I paused, then, and let go of his hand. He scrunched his face and said to come on.

“Paw, where’s my mommy and daddy?”

The freckles on his face looked like fossils. He cleared his throat and took my hand back in his. We walked a few steps in silence until he bent to meet my face, his knees creaking, “We your mommy and daddy. Alright, Richie? Me and Granny.”

I liked the answer, it made me feel warm. But bordering the warmth was an emptiness. I thought if the animals in the zoo could stay alive without their parents, then maybe so could I. And I thought about the way that Granny and Paw had kept me and C. J. alive, feeding us and sheltering us like the keepers in the zoo.

That was then. Now, Granny fed us, but she wasn’t too keen on doing much else. It was like she wanted us to die. And her animal eyes confirmed it. She kept on with the dishes, her back turned to us. She wasn’t looking at us.

I took C. J.’s hand and I ran.

We made it a quarter way down the hallway before Granny was on our heels. She chased us, her eyes ablaze. Smokey trailed her. I booked it the last few steps, made a quick right, and pulled C. J. with me into the darkened closet. I slammed the door in Granny’s face. I heard Smokey whimper on the other side and felt bad. I put my back to the door, fumbled around for the flashlight I knew from our drills was on the bottom shelf, and flicked it on.

The light beamed onto a clunky space heater under a shelf. I kicked it in front of the door, gaining strength I didn’t know I had. Granny banged the door. I piled more objects in front of it. Bottles of laundry detergent. Broken hangers. Jugs of water. C. J. copied me, barricading the door with the little things he could manage to lift, like towels and bars of soap.

She banged the door, but it wouldn’t budge. Smokey woofed. C. J. trembled and I held him. I didn’t know how to tell him that the person who was supposed to protect us no longer could.

“Come on outta there, boys! We gotta go to heaven! The tornado’s gonna take us there! We gonna spin up and see your grandfather.”

C. J. held me tighter. I tried to make my heart beat slower. Her voice sounded different. It was like grief had turned her wild. Like she didn’t know what to do with herself anymore, with Paw gone. I remember how at Paw’s funeral, a lady from the church came up to me and C. J. and said it would take years for us to stop feeling sad. She told us that grief never went away, it just took on new shapes. She said grief was like a set of toes; shaped on account of being squished, assuming new shapes out of necessity. We would evolve to be accustomed to Paw’s absence, she said, before walking away, but it would take years. I wasn’t sure how many months were in a year, but I felt like six months wasn’t enough. I still missed Paw. And so did Granny. I had only known him for my six years of life. She’d known him for forty. She spent more years with him than without. I thought that maybe she didn’t know how to keep living without him.

The white beam of the flashlight made the closet look haunted. C. J. screamed like he was being born again. His tears were fat and astonished. Seeing him so scared made me even more scared. But I was his big brother, so I had to act like it. I pulled his face into my chest. His hot tears soaked through my shirt.

“C. J.,” I searched for the words. I prayed he understood. “It’s something wrong with Granny. OK? It’s something just wrong. Just follow me.”

A snot bubble burst from his nose. Beyond the door, Granny’s shouting mixed with the rain beating the roof, the lightning slashing the sky, the thunder blasting the air, and the sirens moaning throughout the county. I didn’t try to make out what she said. I held C. J. and swept the flashlight over all the shelves stacked with towels. The smell of mothballs scratched my nose. I scanned the highest shelf and saw a plaid men’s shirt sleeve splayed off the edge. I wondered if they had clothes in heaven, or if Paw had to walk around in nothing but his freckles.

“Open this door, boys!”

I heard a giant thud above us. Something fell onto the roof. The ceiling cracked, and cold water rained onto my head. I scanned the light over C. J.’s feet. Water licked his ankles as the carpet flooded. If we didn’t leave, we’d be devoured.

I ignited. If I was Paw, I would protect C. J. from the storm. From anything. Even Granny.

So I took my baby brother’s trembling hand and spoke even though I wasn’t sure he’d understand. “C. J., when I get to three. We’re gonna run outta here. OK? We’re gonna go to Mr. Meckel’s. OK? Just follow me. Don’t listen to Granny.”

I clenched his hand. Granny banged the door. Smokey growled.

One.

Two.

Three!

I kicked aside the objects blocking the door, snatched the knob, and flung it open. I pointed the flashlight in Granny’s face to blind her, held onto C. J., and sprinted down the hallway. We reached the kitchen and the front door. A brass chain sealed it shut. It was a foot higher than me. Granny stumbled toward us. Smokey trailed behind her, panting.

“Where you think you going?” she huffed and scrunched her eyebrows, her face glossy with sweat.

“Mr. Meckel’s,” I said, and jumped three times before reaching the chain and setting it loose.

Granny stopped. Her eyes grew more sad than wild.

“But don’t you wanna come with me to see him? He’ll be mad if I come without you all.”

I wanted to tell her yes. I wanted to see Paw. I wanted it more than anything in the universe. I wanted it so bad that sometimes when I watched cartoons, I closed my right eye and pretended he was next to me. Sometimes I snuck tastes of rotten cha cha from the jars in the back of the fridge. Sometimes I took handfuls of salt and poured them down my throat. But I knew, deep down, that missing him didn’t mean I should betray what he taught us: the rules of staying alive.

Last year, me and Paw went across the street to Mr. Meckel’s. Paw walked on his leopard-print cane and I held his big, leathery hand. We reached Mr. Mecke’s driveway, where he leaned beside his pickup truck. Its bed was full of turtles. As he and Paw snuck cigarettes and chatted about things I didn’t understand, I watched the turtles squirm. One got loose from the net, escaped his truck bed, and landed on the ground. “Christ!” yelled Mr. Meckel and Paw in unison. It moved down the driveway, going pretty fast for a turtle, but then it lost its balance and flipped sideways and back onto its shell. Its fat legs crawled in the air. Mr. Meckel and Paw laughed. It looked so pathetic there, all upturned. I asked Paw, then, how turtles got themselves right side up. How did they get back on their feet? Paw told me it was luck, that they would have to sway from side to side until they flipped back over, or until a good Samaritan gave them a nudge. I asked what would happen if the turtle couldn’t flip itself over, if no one came. I wondered which turtles saved themselves.

“Then it’s gonna stay like that forever, boy,” Mr. Meckel had answered, laughing.

I had looked at the turtle stuck on its shell, thrashing its little green feet. Paw tipped the turtle back over with his toe. The turtle got back on its feet, flipped in what looked like disbelief, and shrank into its shell.

“Granny,” I said, the door chain swinging over my head, along with that memory. “Come with us to Mr. Meckel’s.”

She touched a roller at the nape of her neck and looked beyond my shoulder. At what, I didn’t know. Sirens filled the silence.

We heard something else crash into the roof. Me and C. J. flinched. Granny stayed still.

“Please,” I said.

We heard a cavernous gust. The roof creaked. The patio door shattered, spraying a galaxy of glass. She looked at me blankly.

I took C. J., opened the door, and ran out into the rain.

Water and wind lashed our faces, and we could barely open our eyes. Our clothes pasted to our bodies. But we ran wildly through the storm. We made it to the middle of the street, halfway to Mr. Meckel’s bungalow, before we turned around. We looked at our house and saw that two long, thin branches from the poplar tree had snapped off onto the roof. We looked and saw Smokey headed our way. The rain made his fur shine like shoe polish. We saw Granny standing in the doorway, her arms folded over her chest.

We stopped and stared. Smokey clawed at my legs. I clutched his collar so the wind wouldn’t take him away. We anchored our feet to the gravel, trying not to get snatched up by the wind. I looked into the dark sky and in the distance saw a funnel. I imagined what it would be like to be sucked into the tornado’s entrails. Would Paw really be there waiting for us? I shielded my eyes from the rain. C. J. huddled into my side, burying himself into my ribs.

I looked at Granny, in the distance, and prayed that she would follow us.

She could come. She could. She could extract herself from fantasy and join us. She could take Paw’s counsel and try her best to survive. Even in a storm she thought she couldn’t withstand.

“Boys!” I heard her shout across the way.

I cupped my mouth and shouted, “Yeah?”

“How’s my lipstick?”

She pointed to her mouth. It was red. It was beautiful.

There was no more air in me. Raindrops like bullets pelted my neck.

She touched her lip and frowned. She looked at us for a long time, like she might be ashamed. She glanced down at the ground. Then, she turned and went back inside the house.

I looked at the closed door for a while.

C. J. tugged at my arm, “No!”

His first word.

I relented. I grabbed his wet hand and tugged Smokey’s collar, and we three ran through the wind to Mr. Meckel’s house and banged on his front door. C. J. mimicked me, slapping at the wood with all his little might. Mr. Meckel opened the door and saw us. He asked no questions, just ushered us inside. Smokey ran the fastest. The house smelled like turtles. Before he led us down to the basement to join his family, I turned and looked out the big front window that faced our house. I saw the whole poplar tree split like a matchstick and fall. I saw our whole roof buckle under the weight.

 Mr. Meckel scooped us up and raced us down into the basement. Halfway down the steps, he said, “Your grandmama got you out in this storm like this. Has she lost her mind?”

In the basement, I huddled in a ball on top of C. J. I shielded our heads like Paw taught me. Smokey sat drenched at our side. I breathed in C. J.’s neck and closed my eyes and saw Granny.

I saw her sitting at her vanity. I saw her undoing her rollers. I saw her primping her curls and applying more lipstick. I saw rising water lapping at her feet. I saw the smile she must have made as the roof caved in, as she dug in her pocket and clutched the old photo, as she must have looked in the mirror a final time, through a teary smile—and told Paw she was on her way.

And I had hoped that when she got to heaven, wherever it was, she would tell Paw I was sorry for not coming. That, despite my absence, I really did miss him and wished so badly to see him again. Even now, all these years later, I still miss him. I hoped, then, that Paw would somehow know that I had only done what I thought he would have wanted me to do. I survived. I did what I think Paw surely wished he could have done six months earlier at Anderson Hospital, when he squeezed my hand a final time and told me to be a good boy, to watch over my brother, and to grow big and strong—like I am now.

Photo of Leila Renee
Leila Renee has fiction in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Prairie Schooner, Columbia Journal, Transition Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, and other places. She received the 2021 Gulf Coast Prize in Fiction and was selected for the Best Microfiction 2023 anthology. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University.

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Sa Ki Pi Bel

By Melissa Beneche

Lionel Repons. Won 909,888 votes. Pierre Boucher. Won 23,524 votes. Granma Nisette’s radio man calls them, the presidential election results for the département Nord, with such conviction. His voice sticks […]

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