Take a trip to the country. A pleasant day turns into a nightmare as a vicious storm blows in and almost takes a life.
The day started out normal, I guess. Same as any other day.
Me and Jeb got up early, before sunrise, to do the work in the barn before he headed off to the fields for the day. Jeb milked the cows while I mucked the stalls. We both gathered fresh eggs from the small flock of chickens we kept in the coop. By the time the sun was peeking up over the horizon like soft pink arms stretching out over the cornfields, kissing the leaves of the trees and drying the dew on the grass, we were on our way back to the house, hauling two full wicker baskets.
Jeb went around back to use the washtub behind the house while I busied myself getting something hot on the table—fresh eggs, fried potatoes and onions, a few slices of ham if we had any leftover from dinner the night before. The tinkle of brass clasps on Jeb’s overalls and the heavy plodding of his boots let me know he was dressed and would be heading to the kitchen shortly. Jeb usually had just a few minutes between dressing and heading out the door to sit and eat. I indulged in a few spare minutes to eat with him, watching him gulp strong black coffee and shovel food into his mouth.
“Gon' be a hot one today,” I mused. I could already feel the heat seeping through the window panes above the kitchen sink. A triple digit day, I figured.
Jeb nodded, chewing a mouthful of food, his eyes following mine to the view of clear blue skies and a light wind rocking the branches on the oak tree in the middle of the yard. “Supposed to get a storm in, soon. That’ll be good. Crops need it.”
“Ours and Riley’s,” I said, nodding my agreement. Jeb worked for Jacob Riley, a farmer who lived a mile or so away from the small patch of land we called home. The Riley Farm supplied most of the town with its corn and wheat as well as fresh fruits and vegetables. It wasn’t what he wanted to be doing, but Jeb was determined to keep a roof over our heads and food on our table. Besides, sometimes Riley let the field hands take the surplus home. I ain’t had to plant a tomato in… Lord, I couldn't remember how long.
I hummed a soft tune, one familiar to both of us, picking at the remnants of egg and potatoes on my plate, dreading the tick of the clock when the big hand would reach the nine and Jeb would push away from the table, set his empty plate into the sink, and then bend to drop a kiss on my cheek. His breath would smell like coffee and potatoes. His tone would be light and cheerful. His steps, though, would be slow and heavy as his boots clomped along the wood floor toward the front door. Field work was hard, back breaking work, but it was work all the same.
I rose from the table with a sigh, leaving my plate where it sat. Would be plenty of time for cleaning up after Jeb was gone for the day.
“You don’t work too hard, now,” I said, teasing as I did every morning, adjusting the strap of his overalls as he pulled them over broad shoulders and snapped them closed. “You know Jacob Riley don’t care none if you get overtired or break somethin’. He’ll just replace you.”
“Yes ma’am,” Jeb would always answer. “You know I do my best to come home to ya everyday.”
“Well. You just make sure today is the same as any other day, and we’ll be fine.”
After Jeb left for the day, I started in on my chores. I had a nice little routine of things I did on certain days of the week. Kept me from having to clean all day every day, and gave some variety to my schedule. Since it was Tuesday, it was wash day, so I gathered up all of Jeb’s sweat stained t-shirts and overalls with dirt crusted into the cuffs. I would also pull up the rugs and stir the dust around. Spring and summer had been so dry, it seemed like the air was just full of dust. At night it settled and during the day it kicked up again. I was almost about to give up on it.
I hummed and sang and did my chores, making good progress on my list. It was such a nice day that I thought I’d take an extra long break, pack a lunch in a basket and steal away to the fields just beyond the house. My sister up in St Louis had sent me some books. Some adult story books. I was a little ashamed at first to show them to Jeb, but she got me hooked on them when we went up to visit her and her husband. I read every one she had in the house and when she got a new one, she’d send it along to me. I was waiting for a nice day, when I could get a long break and go reading. At about one o’clock, I set out with my lunch and did just that.
I found my favorite spot, on a flat piece of land where the grass was still a little bit green and soft, and sat with my back up against the trunk of what was probably a hundred year old tree. I had packed a sandwich of leftover ham and cheese and some sliced tomatoes from Riley’s. I set out my blanket, unpacked my lunch, and opened the latest package from Janie.
On the cover was a man, a handsome, shirtless man, with smooth, flawless skin the color of molasses and almond shaped brown eyes. He had a mustache, like Jeb’s but fuller, and hair cut close to his head, real short. “My, my, my,” I said to myself, already lost in the story of two lovers who were not meant to be, but desperately wanted to be together. Seemed like the lady in the story needed to be saved from something. Maybe herself. I liked to switch the characters out and put me in Jeb in them. Made it more real.
Time got away from me, reading that story, so much that I didn’t notice the sky changing and getting darker. I didn’t see or feel the wind picking up and blowing the grass this way and that, rustling through the leaves on the trees. It wasn’t until a cool wind snaked down my back and the scent of rain hit my nose that I looked up. A terrible pain shot through my heart. I don’t know if that pain was panic or fear, or a mix of the two.
The sky was dark. The clouds were black and looming, seeming to pile one top of the other and blow in with the wind, which was strong and growing stronger. In the distance, I saw the ugliest thing I’d seen in a while. A few miles away, the sky was was jet black and ugly as sin. And comin’ straight at me, loud and fast as a runaway freight train.
“Bad storm’s comin’,” I said aloud to no one. In a hurry, I gathered the rest of my lunch, my blanket, and my book and headed toward the house, barely able to breath through the gusts of wind. It seemed like every time I looked up, that ugly patch was even closer than it was a few seconds before.
Normal rain weren’t no thing for us. We’d hole up in the house around the fire, listening to the drops hit the roof and pitterpatter of the edge into puddles around the house. Once it was over, we went on with our lives.
A heavy rain with a mighty force of wind and an evil sky meant trouble. Maybe even a twister. I ain’t seen one of them in a long time… not since the one that took my daddy when I was nine.
I ran to the house, our little shack on a few acres of land, just barely sturdy enough to withstand coming storm. I dumped my basket on the porch steps and headed toward the barn. The cows were agitated, milling around, moo’ing at me like I knew what they was saying. Them dummies didn’t even know to get back into the barn. I had to shoo ‘em in there, along with the chickens, and close the door behind them, then get to the house and close up all the windows and wait for Jeb to come home. He'd likely wait out the storm at Riley's. If there was daylight left when it was over, Jeb would lead the team in scouring over the crops to get an idea of the damage.
It was starting to rain, and rain hard. Not just a drip-drip-drip rain, but a hard driving, hurts-when-it-hits-your-bodyrain. It was almost dark as night now, but I knew it couldn’t be no later than two o’clock. I managed to get everyone of them dumb animals into the barn but I couldn’t get the door closed. The wind was powerful and fierce, blowing the door open at the same time I was pushing it closed. I pushed and pushed at it, using the power of my backside against the worn, painted wood, my feet sinking into the mud that formed when the clay dirt got too soggy and waterlogged. I cringed as mud crept over my shoes, soaking my feet through my socks.
The sky seemed to come wide open and exhale, right over our little house, sending gusts to kick up dirt and mud and objects we kept around the yard-- buckets and baskets, tools and jars. They flew past me, swirling around me until they hit something hard and sturdy and busted into pieces. Then the pieces got picked up, carried on high winds, sending sharp bits of shrapnel into my face.
Soaking wet, so cold I was numb, and covered in mud, I managed to close and latch the double wide doors and rushed around to the side of the barn. Jeb kept a long plane of wood that he would slide between the two handles, keeping the door closed and our animals inside. Just as I found and reached for it, I heard a long, loud crreeeeaaaakkkkkk and out of the corner of my eye, I saw the barn door flying open, going faster than I could run.
I remembered seeing it coming. I remembered trying to shield myself with my arms. I remember screaming, “Lord, help me!” loud as I could, in case he couldn’t hear my prayers over the howling wind and the driving rain and the breaking glass. I remember the sound of the wood as it sped toward me and splintered on impact, and searing pain upside my head and down my right side. I remember the sick pop I felt and heard in my wrist as I hit the ground.
I remember wishing Jeb was home.
I don’t know how long I laid there in the mud and the wind and the cold, the rain filling every dip in the yard, those puddles spilling over and running like little rivers around my body. I just remember not feeling anymore pain. Not feeling cold or wet. I remember dreaming.
I dreamt a scene from that book I was reading, where that handsome man came and found me, picked me up and carried me to safety, took care of the open, bleeding gash in my head and my swollen wrist, probably broken. He removed the muddy, wet clothes and laid me close to the fire so I could warm up. It was a nice dream.
Piece by piece, I started to wake up, except I wasn't still outside in the yard. And that weren't no dream. Jeb had come.
I was in my house. Our house. I was warm. There was a fire going and I was lying on the cot closest to the heat. I had nothing on but my underclothes but I was clean and dry. I looked around for a minute, seeing the glowing fire and feeling the warmth and more importantly, the pain when I tried to move my head, my stuttered breath catching Jeb’s attention.
“You just lay still, Carolyn,” he said softly, moving to my side, his big soft hand stroking my cheek. “Lay right there and don't move. You don’t need to be movin’ around.”
“I believe I’ll rest, just this once,” I said, smiling up at his face hanging over mine, rivers of worry etched into his forehead.
“You gon’ be alright? Riley sent us all home when the wind let up some. 'Bout scared me to death to find you layin’ out there in the mud.”
I nodded as best I could, despite the dull throb in my head Felt like someone was hammering something on my right side. “I’m gon’ be fine," I answered. Then smiled and said, "My hero come to save me.”
His face was stern, but playfully so. “Been readin’ them books again, I see.”
I tried to laugh but a stabbing feeling pain through my head. I smiled through the grimace. “Yeah. So? What’s it matter to ya?”
He laughed, the sound bouncing around the small room and echoing in my head. “You say you always put me in the story. I guess as long as I’m always the hero in ‘em, don’t matter none at all.”
Jeb fussed with the bandage on my head and the sling he had created for my wrist, humming the same soft tune from earlier in the day. With my good hand and my good eye, I caught his attention. Looking at him, my throat closed up a little bit and a tear come to my eye.
Maybe Jeb didn’t have almond shaped eyes and long pretty black lashes and smooth skin the color of molasses, but he was my hero. I had come close to leaving him that day. And as hard as life was for us, I do believe that either of us living life without the other would be double hard. I believe that as much as I believe anything.
I made it a point to look my handsome man in his small, dark brown eyes, and hold his hand, admiring the walnut colored skin that had been hardened and weathered by the sun he endured to keep us afloat. To keep us together. To keep us a family.
“Don't matter how many of them books I read," I whispered. "You gon’ always be my hero, Jeb Clark. Always.”