Late August is a trigger that ignites edgy tension in Jane-Claire. The month spawns anxiety without any provocation other than her own vivid memories. The young woman sits at a table across from Liz, a well-kept older woman, in the garden room of the “Authentic New Orleans style” restaurant. Jane-Claire’s back is straight as a board, her shoulders squared. Her long hair cascades from a center part. A dancer’s posture is Jane-Claire’s platform, and anyone can read the ‘no’ in her body language a mile away.
“It’s been years since it happened.” Liz leans forward across the white tablecloth and silver flatware that grace the table. “It’s time.”
“Time for what? Dredging up the past. Opening Pandora’s box.” Jane-Claire can’t look her mother’s best friend in the eye and instead, glances at her salad. Chopped pickles lace a remoulade dressing that totally drenches the boiled shrimp. Imagine. Where could the chef possibly be from? Definitely north of where the dish is done right. Jane-Claire’s mother, born and bred in New Orleans, would have a fit. Her mom would also be upset that Liz’s advice rankles Jane-Claire as much as the mess on her plate being passed off as Cajun Creole cuisine.
“Over twelve years have gone by.” Liz’s French heritage shines. She speaks with her hands, opening, closing, moving through the air to cajole and persuade.
Jane-Claire lets Liz’s comment linger. After all, Liz did take time from her husband just out of the hospital from recent surgery and their eight grown children plus families to take her to lunch. She has enough on her plate, all on her own. Jane-Claire watches Liz lift a spoon of soupy red beans and rice and grimace in disgust. The statement sinks in. What can Jane-Claire say? How can she make Liz understand?
Twelve years or two, the passage of time makes no difference.
In truth, Jane-Claire has been writing about the hurricane ever since it happened. Small parts of her experience seep into suspense thrillers about attractive nuisances, mysteries about spectacular bluffs that win the game. She writes about secret anniversaries of the heart, murder by proxy and all of her work is colored by the toll of personal disaster.
Jane-Claire lived that story.
Liz may mean well by prodding her to write “based on truth” experience but Jane-Claire can counter. Tolkien didn’t have first-hand knowledge of Hobbits, wizards, or “one ring to rule them all.” He fought in World War I and the horror provided everything he needed.
“I don’t want to... I can’t.” Jane-Claire’s shoulders droop. Her voice is small. She shoves the shrimp around her plate. Too much mayonnaise. Pickle bits and no Tabasco. Orange red dots of cayenne pepper resemble tiny chiggers. The salad looks like vomit and she does not want to write reality.
“‘I can’t’ has no meaning for you. You can, and you know it.” Liz is always so warm, caring. She has a lovely smile. Bull’s-eye. She hit a nerve which is exactly what she intended. “Don’t answer now. Just think about it. There’ve been so many natural disasters since...”
Jane-Claire gazes out the atrium window. Trees and vegetation in the Pacific Northwest are still foreign to her. She lives on a different coast now with a view of a vast, cold ocean. Her beach house is set high on a bluff. She bought the house, perceived as safe from Pacific whims, because it is not in a tsunami zone. She remembers. Her home in Gulfport wasn’t in a flood zone. The lawyers at the closing on that house laughed at her mother when she insisted on buying flood insurance. An erratic wind blows through the restaurant garden.
Jane-Claire stands. The black linen napkin falls from her lap to the floor.
“Thank you, but I have to go. A storm’s coming.” Jane-Claire pictures her husband and daughter at home waiting for her.
“I believe in you.” Liz continues to talk as Jane-Claire makes a beeline for the exit door of the restaurant. “Believe in yourself.”
Jane-Claire drives the coast road too fast in her desperate rush to get home. Her thoughts race. Liz’s suggestion startled her, every bit as much as the churning surf breaking on the wide Pacific beach. Clouds come in from the west, dark and ominous. She screeches onto her turnoff and pitches gravel as she maneuvers the car up the steep winding driveway.
Pulling into her garage, Jane-Claire flips the engine off and jumps from the car. But instead of going inside the house, she walks to the garage door opening and gazes out at the ocean. Her hair lifts in the wind, streams behind her.
The farther Jane-Claire is from the storm, her storm, the less she wants to talk about it. She tries to forget, but the past is never past. Disaster captures her. She sticks like glue to scenes of rising water. Horrific wind is a song. She has recurring dreams of inflatable plastic furniture that can be quickly blown up and put in place to furnish a room then just as quickly flattened to fit in an enormous suitcase in case of an evacuation order. In her worst nightmares, she is drowning in debris filled storm surge. Disaster is intimate, palpable. One set of ruins can’t be compared to another. Shells, skeletons, and remnants are all individual. Body counts and property loss are not a true measure.
When the sky is blue again and the water, fire, shaking, or surge is gone, the scene is always familiar. Gray with a mottling of brown. Shades of shadow are the only color. All aftermath looks pretty much the same.
Jane-Claire’s husband bursts through the back door of their home. His smile says he’s been waiting for her.
Faye, their three year old daughter, wiggles and squirms in his arms. When he sets her down in the garage, she breaks away and runs full tilt toward Jane-Claire. Daddy just misses grasping hold of Faye’s dress.
“Mommy!” Arms outstretched, her little legs pump against the damp, slippery floor.
“Faye, slow down.” Jane-Claire shouts, but warnings go unheeded. She hurries to catch her. The little girl’s desire to hug her mommy outweighs her ability to balance. She splats to the
floor. Faye cries and her busted lip bleeds, swells.
Jane-Claire scoops Faye up into her arms. Blood flows down her chin and onto her arm.
Blood always looks like more than it is. Jane-Claire hears her dad saying that as a caution not to panic. Although when she was young, Jane-Claire took it to mean that injury was of no consequence unless you were bleeding all over the floor. Her dad didn’t mean that at all.
“Shh, quiet now. Don’t go on. It’s not that bad. Just a little boo-boo.” Jane-Claire holds her little daughter tight as if she herself can absorb the distress. “Shush. Be quiet now. Calm down. Be a big girl.”
Faye swallows her cries and stares at Jane-Claire. “But Mommy, it hurts.” Blinking back her tears and dead serious, Faye tells her mommy that she is wrong.
Pain can’t just be willed away because someone else wants it to stop.
“I know. I understand.” Tears well in Jane-Claire’s eyes. She hugs her little girl, pats her back.
Daddy brings a cloth with ice and holds it to Faye’s lip. Standing next to Jane-Claire, he puts his arm around her. Together, they stand at the garage entrance to watch the wind and waves crash as the storm barrels onshore.
Fifteen year old Jane-Claire Stevens stands with her family in front of their church, a modern steel and cement monolith across the street from the beach. The doors to the church are locked. They stand, waiting as Mason her dad, tries a second time to open the main entrance.
“I’ve never heard of such a thing.” Dona, Jane-Claire’s mom, insists on regular attendance. She rousted everyone out of bed that morning with coffee and sausage biscuits, a winning combo that can’t be refused.
“Wait. Beep the car for me. I’ve got to film this.” Jane-Claire runs down the steps toward the family’s Ford Expedition.
Mason presses the keyless entry.
“We should’ve known. The parking lot’s empty. It’s a dead giveaway.” Jane-Claire twirls in a lone patch of bright sunshine gracing the middle of the circular drive.
Lerue rubs his eyes. Her brother is not quite awake yet. “I just thought we were early.”
Jane-Claire returns from the SUV with her prize video camera in hand. She documents the phenomena of the cancelled church service then captures building waves on the beach. Layers of clouds in the skyscape high above her twist together and tear apart.
Jane-Claire lives with her family in Gulfport, a beautiful little town on the Mississippi Gulf coast. Their beach cottage is on Second Street, only a block off of the ritzier Beach Highway studded by antebellum homes. Small and old, their home is considered safe since it didn’t flood during Hurricane Camille, one of the only Category 5 hurricanes to ever hit the continental United States.
The family moved to Gulfport because of her parents’ dream to settle where they honeymooned. Phase one is now. Her dad works in the emergency department at the big hospital. He plans to staff the hospital’s urgent care centers when he gets older, phase two complete. Her parents think that if they live at the beach, then Lerue and she will visit more often in their hypothetical futures when they have their own families. Lerue and Jane-Claire haven’t thought that far ahead.
“I guess all the restaurants are closed too.” Lerue trudges down the steps to their premiere parking space. Seriously. They should have called before leaving the house.
“White Cap is open.” Jane-Claire waits for him in the circle drive. “I saw it on the way over. They put ‘Welcome Jim Cantore and the Weather Channel’ on their sign out front.”
“Then let’s get some po-boys and go home. We need to board up and finish taking the lawn furniture in before I go to work.” Mason shakes his head at what he now perceives as a waste of valuable time and gets in the car.
As they drive down the Beach Highway, he points out the former site of his Grandfather’s home in Long Beach. Mason spent most of his summers as a boy with his Pappy. Built by a sea captain, he details how the house had thick ship windows, port holes, and minimal damage during Camille, but was sold and bulldozed anyway. Dad has a long history on the coast.
Jane-Claire always listens when they drive by but all she ever sees is an empty lot. Today, she notices that the people in the small house that’s more of a camp next door are packing their car. Their house windows are already boarded.
The po-boys at White Cap are great; overstuffed with shrimp and dressed with loads of shredded lettuce and home grown tomatoes. Despite the sign out front, the Weather Channel crew is nowhere in sight. In fact, no one else is in the restaurant which makes for zero conversation and a quick meal. Jane-Claire gives half of her sandwich to Lerue. Dona wraps some biscuits in a napkin. Mason tips the waitress with his emergency money, a fifty dollar bill tucked in the back of his wallet. The waitress locks the door as soon as the Stevens family leaves.
The beach in Gulfport is broad and flat, great for walks, skim boarding, and picnics. Lerue skims every day after school so Mason and Dona never worry about their son playing too many video games. Lerue is hardly ever inside the house. His only concern is who is the best skim boarder, and how he can teach the newbies to be better.
The water off the beach is shallow and murky because barrier islands with names like Cat and Ship protect the inland shore during storms by bearing the brunt of the Gulf of Mexico’s surf. Usually. That’s how it’s supposed to work. There is a National Park on Ship Island, and a tour boat makes regular round trips during the spring and summer.
Armed with summer passes, Jane-Claire and her best friend, Natalie Odessa, often travel to Ship Island for the day, and trek the boardwalk over a salt swamp to the glorious white sand and turquoise surf. Primitive and wild, the island is a great set for Jane-Claire to film her stories about lost love, stranded lives, terrible danger, and most of all, survival.
Jane-Claire’s dream of becoming a filmmaker starts here. She has a fledgling film company named White Cat Productions after Natalie’s pure black cat, Bituminous. She writes scripts that more than vaguely resemble Lord of the Rings because she loves heroic stories, but she is also influenced by another book she read freshman year, Lord of the Flies. In that story, the characters don’t rise to the occasion. They lose their humanity and sink like stones.
Jane-Claire and Natalie went out to Ship Island two weekends ago. School had already started, but neither of them were settled in to sophomoredom yet. Jane-Claire holds the freedom and immediate present of summer days as long as she can.
She took tons of footage. Sea oats waving on the dunes. Deep, clouded skies floating in the background but not enough to shade the sun’s sparkle on the surf. Her story that day was about an all-girls school shipwrecked on an island. She and Nat swam in the languid water, hot as a bathtub, and they had to keep a lookout for lemon sharks chasing smaller bait fish. They feasted on sandwiches and drank big bottles of sports drink. That evening, they came back to shore, happy and tanned. A Perfect Day if Jane-Claire ever lived one.
Jane-Claire leans against the back seat window of the Expedition and looks at the shoreline as her dad drives Beach Highway. The wind stirs up wavelets. Gray clouds circle in concentric bands that extend far out to sea.
When the Stevens arrive at their home on Second Street, Jane-Claire sets up her camera to take a family portrait. She can’t let their effort of dressing up in church clothes be totally in vain. Cicadas wail low and long in the August afternoon. The dark clouds make the day seem later than it really is.
Their white frame house, built on a double lot, is understated and serene. Inviting and cherished. Azaleas and confederate jasmine circle live oaks in the front yard. Jane-Claire detects the lemon scent from the white magnolia blooms beside her mom’s bedroom all the way at the back of the house. An old pine tree at the front corner of their driveway stands as sentinel.
“Do we have to? We already wasted time going to a church that wasn’t even open.” Lerue is not particularly cooperative. He wants to go out skimming before the police start enforcing curfew. He is a senior this year and will be off to college next, which is another reason Jane- Claire pushes to take the family picture.
“The quicker you’re in place, the quicker I’ll be done.” She talks to Lerue as if he’s a small child. He’s better that way.
“Go on. Up on the steps.” She uses her director’s voice to arrange her family under the portico on the diminutive front porch. She doesn’t know why the photo is so important to her, but she must have known. She sets her camera to allow time for her to jump in. They all smile and hug each other. Jane-Claire takes the picture.
The Stevens family prepares. Changed from church clothes to board shorts, Lerue is the muscle as he and Mason board forward facing windows with half inch plywood. Jane-Claire and Dona carry a glider and the little cement goose that wears different seasonal costumes from the porch along with anything else that can be moved inside.
This is a familiar drill. Each task assigned and completed in a practiced order. The last mission is to secure the hot tub. Mason only trusts himself to lash the brown cover to the water weighted fiberglass. They finish. Mason and Dona go into the house and Jane-Claire looks up at the sky. The fickle wind occasionally allows a slit of blue to peek through the gray clouds.
Carrying his skimboard under his arm, Lerue bounds around the corner of the house and across the lawn.
“You headed out?” Jane-Claire squints in the harsh glare.
“I wish. The waves’re kicking” Lerue stops beside his sister. “But I promised I’d wait for mom because the cops don’t want anybody on the beach. Jeez.” He’s about to jump out of his skin, he is so excited. “Go inside. Talk to them. They’re in the kitchen drinking coffee. I need to get to the beach before they close it off.”
“They already did that.” Jane-Claire is incredulous that her big brother thinks that she can influence their parents to do, or not do, anything. A little flattered, she decides to give it a try.
She climbs the porch steps and enters the house leaving Lerue to pace the yard.
Jane-Claire’s favorite room is the study to the right of the tiny foyer. Once an outside porch, her dad and Lerue recently converted the space to what she considers her personal haven. A computer desk stands between two large windows on the outside wall. A comfortable wing chair with a reading lamp and bookshelves line the inside walls. The ceiling fan is a deep indigo blue. Jane-Claire loves it.
She sits at the desk and opens the computer. Her journal rests in its place beside a Hello Kitty mousepad. She can’t possibly commit her innermost thoughts to a virtual world just yet. Handwritten on paper seems best. Jane-Claire’s journal is one of her most prized possessions. Pretty funky looking, the book is covered in denim and has a pattern of swirling colored beads all over the front cover. Kind of ugly, but she got it as a present from a friend for her birthday one year, reason enough to secure its value.
She busies herself at the computer, backs up files, but Jane-Claire mostly listens to her parents’ conversation in the kitchen, a tiny, barn red, triangular space that has been updated with a pro gas cooktop, copper backsplash, and a convection oven. There is a super-duper dishwasher and garbage disposal as well. All rooms in their house are small but everything in them is well thought out and planned. The arrangement also makes eavesdropping pretty easy.
Mason has to go in to work this afternoon, and this is the fact that the conversation revolves on. He sits at the kitchen table and watches Dona prepare some sandwiches to take in with him.
His lab coat hangs on a wall hook near the back door. One thing must be understood. The South is subtext and Jane-Claire’s mom and dad only call each other by their first names when they are upset or down right angry.
“Mason, the storm track could shift. There’s still time.” Her mom talks to the sandwich. “We’re boarded up. The lawn furniture’s in. The hot tub’s strapped down. We’re as ready as we can be.”
The family just got everything back in place from another hurricane warning a couple of weeks before. That storm was supposed to hit them but was a complete shoo-shoo, and instead ripped the Florida panhandle.
“Wish I didn’t have to go into work.” Her dad always makes the same wish, then ends up spending beaucoup time there.
Dona looks over her shoulder at him. Always the ballet dancer, her movements appear feline and fluid, one of Jane-Claire’s main reasons for taking ballet herself. She likes the way it makes her feel, the strength that allows her to move as she wants. It’s fun and she’s good at it.
“What about disease and pestilence?” Dona cuts the sandwiches into neat rectangles and puts them into a Ziploc.
“Tell it to wait... I want you and the kids to come in with me.” Jane-Claire’s dad means it. He wants them to evacuate, but her mom cannot fathom a more ludicrous suggestion.
“And stay where? We don’t work at the hospital. We’re not part of essential personnel. Mason, we can’t stop living life because you see things that don’t always go right.”
“I’m an emergency physician.” That’s dad’s simple answer to most everything. Everyone dies, and he would like to prevent that as long as possible. It can ruin a person’s day.
“What do you want? Wait...” Dona throws her arms up in front of her and freezes like a store mannequin. “Suspended animation!”
“Dona, I want your safety.” Whoops, dad is using his doctor’s voice now. “How come you only say my name when you’re upset with me?” Although Jane-Claire doesn’t see it, she hears his long-suffering sigh. “Honey...”
Big gun time. Her mom’s laugh makes Jane-Claire smile.
“Oops! Now you’re really mad.” Dona sashays over to dad, sets his lunch bag on the table, then sits on his lap.
“Diehard. It’s against your religion to evacuate.” She takes his hands and kisses him, a quick smack on the lips.
“I haven’t heard mandatory evacuation orders yet... Since you have work, I don’t want to go off to Gatlinburg, call it anything other than a vacation, and have you here all alone.” Dona hugs him.
“When I was a girl, I remember waking up one morning with Camille ten miles from the mouth of the river. There was never any time to leave.” Dona is from New Orleans where evacuation has traditionally been assigned for northern transplants only. “Riding it out” is the term used and the preferred method for dealing with disturbances in the Gulf.
Jane-Claire formats a DVD and interrupts. She’s good at that. “Dad, did you pick up the bonfire permit? What about it? I’m emailing myself all our documents and making discs of my White Cat movies. All our files are backed up. I dumped the pictures in Photobucket.” She waits a strategic second. “And mom, Lerue’s waiting for you to go out to the beach with him. You don’t want the police to give him a hard time, do you?”
Mason pulls Dona close and wrap his arms around her.
“Great job, J.C.” Mason kisses Dona for real . . . Just as Lerue enters the kitchen through the back door.
Lerue stops short, embarrassed at his bad timing. Do parents really kiss each other? He clears his throat. “Sorry... Jim Cantore’s down the street at the VA. If the Weather Channel’s here, we’re all screwed.”
Dad is still on a different planet. He looks at his son and muses. “Take my advice, Lerue. Marry your second wife first.”
“Yeah...” Lerue grimaces and skirts through the kitchen. “I’ll remember that... Mom, I’m ready to go to the beach whenever you are.” He turns on the television in the living room.
Mason hugs Dona one more time before she stands. “Yes, J.C., I have the bonfire permit. I handed it over to mom for safekeeping.” Mason looks at his wife. “Love me?”
Mom points to the lab coat hanging at the door. “Hey, I iron your lab coats.”
Proof positive, but dad’s request that they evacuate to the hospital and mom’s decision to ride out the storm at home remains between them. Unsettled. Unresolved.
Jane-Claire’s parents came from families with an operating motto of “every man for himself.” That makes them both wary and fiercely independent. Every now and then when they go out to dinner as a family, the waiter asks if they want separate checks. Not today, but often enough. Her mom is an expert in ballet, a former dancer and teacher, and her dad belongs to medicine. In spite of separate worlds, they found each other, and Jane-Claire believes they love each other, even if it means that sometimes they disagree, or don’t see anything or anyone else.
Except, her dad always sees her. She admires him. His work is hard, but he makes a difference. She’s taking anatomy this year for her science credit because of him. If film making doesn’t work out, she might be a doc. Or be a doc first and then make films.
Jane-Claire closes the computer and reaches for her journal. She’s kept the journal since fifth grade. She likes to write about what she does. What she dreams. Special days and friends. Stories she imagines that she hopes to put in a script. She writes about what matters most and she’s always surprised how that changes day to day.
Jane-Claire is amazed that everyone acts so normal. Lerue focuses on skimming, like most days, but with a tad more excitement because the beach is volatile and menacing. Her mom gets dad ready for work, as if nothing at all is looming in the background. Dad goes along with that, even though the church was locked, and services cancelled.
The storm gearing up in the Gulf first made an appearance on the weather channel last week. After raking the edge of Florida as a Category I, the disturbance ran straight for the heated Gulf waters. It’s been growing ever since.
When Mason leaves for work, Jane-Claire follows him through the back porch and down the steps. His white coat drapes over his arm and his stethoscope hangs from his neck. She wins a bet she made with herself that he would walk straight to his prized hot tub sitting on a concrete pad behind the garage. He snaps the straps he used to lash down the cover and checks for a tight fit. She has no idea where he expects the hot tub to go. He looks at it like the bulky rounded square might grow legs and feet and take off any moment.
Then Jane-Claire’s attention turns to the dilapidated house next door. A mysterious urban legend of their neighborhood, the house holds a story that she craves to discover. She debates whether the tale is romance, tragedy, or both. Her dad thinks it’s a horror story. He’s considered putting up a fence. He sent real estate agents over to ask if the occupant might be interested in selling. He went himself with a sales contract in hand. He tracked down the occupant’s daughter and offered to contribute money, time, and materials to fix the place up. No deal. The owner occupant wasn’t interested.
“What about Miss Adele?” Everyone knows the lady’s name, but that’s about it. Jane-Claire collects the rumors. Her son was a B-52 pilot. His plane was shot down in Vietnam and he is still listed as missing in action. Miss Adele keeps deadly snakes, species that aren’t even allowed into the country. She was a famous actress, and the inside of the house is a total contrast to the outside. None of the rumors are verified. She’s just a name, and the house looks worse for wear every year.
Mason shakes his head and doesn’t even look in the direction of the weather-beaten white structure. “I called her daughter this morning. She said she’ll try to convince her to leave but... I remember that joke about a rowboat and a helicopter. God expects you to get out of harm’s way if you have the chance.”
Jane-Claire’s not sure if her dad’s talking about Miss Adele or mom.
“Does she really have pet snakes?” The house is like a magnet whenever she stands in the driveway. An Oscar winning movie just waiting to be filmed.
“Who knows? I’ve never been inside.” Mason bends down to rub Bituminous, the black tomcat. The cat slinks over and flips on top of Mason’s shoes. He pets the cat’s tummy.
“Yes, sir. You can sure smell when a hurricane’s in the Gulf. Nothing but oyster shells and rot.” A thin elderly man ambles up the driveway and surveys the threatening sky.
Jane-Claire likes Ed. He taught her how to catch crabs with fishing line. He has stories about an old snowball stand where he spent summer days eating the icy concoctions and counting different state license plates on the cars traveling Beach Highway. He is her main source of stories about Miss Adele. He claims he went to high school with her.
Mason examines the swirling clouds. “That used to be the only warning, Ed. My great granddaddy was a bridge tender over in the bay. He stayed out one time, so he could let the fisherman in. He tied himself to the bridge pilings to keep from being swept away.”
“Wash your truck today, Doc Stevens?” Ed is retired from the telephone company, but carries his bucket and sponges around on the weekends. He likes his extra spending money.
Mason pulls a twenty from his wallet and hands it to his old friend. “Not today, Ed. Catch me next time.”
Ed pockets the money and reverses direction. He raises his hand, half in taking leave and half in resignation to almighty fate. “Good thing we too old to die young. God help us.”
“Amen. Stay safe.” Mason and Jane-Claire wave good-bye. Her dad hugs her, then turns to Miss Adele’s ramshackle house. He walks closer and shouts toward a window. “Miss Adele, don’t you be so stubborn. This storm looks like it may pack a real punch. Bury the hatchet. Go stay with your family.”
Jane-Claire follows at her dad’s heels and takes his hand. They stand as if they’re going to hear a reply any second.
She looks at her dad. “I’ll talk to mom.”
Mason pats her hand. “Thanks, baby.” He kisses her forehead, then gets in his truck and drives off.
Fear and doubt creep through to Jane-Claire’s bones. Mom may be business as usual. Lerue may think the storm is just a grand skim adventure, but dad senses gravity when it changes. No one ever expects to go the ER. No one wants to.
Jane-Claire looks after him as he drives down the street. Some houses are boarded up. Some not. It’s a little past noon.