Jane Armstrong

Hurricane Cleo hit my home in Lake Worth, Florida when I was nine years old. My family should've evacuated, but the sad fact was that we couldn't afford to. Half of the time we couldn't afford to put gas in the car, much less drive it to a safe place, miles away, inland. My mother made excuses as each carload of cautious neighbors pulled away: "It won't be that bad," she'd say. "Florida houses are built for this weather." But I didn't have much faith in the flimsy roof of our 900-square-foot cracker-box tract home and I wished to God that one of those departing families would load me into the back of their stationwagon and take me far away.

Like all beach-town kids, my sister and I were expert hurricane trackers, marking coordinates in crayon on maps printed on Winn Dixie grocery store bags. But it wasn't until my chronically absent father blew in that we knew for sure a big storm was about to hit. He'd pull up just in time, his truck loaded with bottled water, flashlight batteries, candles, Space Food Sticks, all the necessary provisions. Under a darkening sky, in the face of winds that'd knock me down flat, he'd hammer wooden shutters over our jalousie windows. Then he'd join us inside.

Cleo pummeled the roof and kicked at the walls while the four of us huddled together on the floor in the 3 x 3 space we called the hallway. My sister and I dripped candlewax in patterns on the tile floor as my father panned his flashlight back and forth across our faces. My mother held a transistor radio to her ear, listening for news between waves of static. "Keep still," she'd say.

I remember a crash, glass shattering, crying, my sister screaming, our parents pulling us close, covering us, like something resembling a family.

Hurricanes are poltergeists--spirits as comical as they are destructive. Cleo had punched in every other pane in our bathroom window, showering the bathtub with shards of glass. She'd blown my sister's bike across the street and turned it upside down, balanced perfectly on seat and handlebars on top of a neighbor's stripped bare hedge. And she had amputated the left leg and right arm of a Barbie I'd left outside on the carport.

My father surveyed the damage, shrugged, drove away. My mother told the returning neighbors she knew all along there was no reason to evacuate, that she'd always been sensitive to the weather. My sister skimboarded the rainwater flooding our street. I searched the bushes for my lost doll parts.

The storm had passed.

Jane Armstrong teaches creative writing at Northern Arizona University. Her work has appeared in North American Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, New Orleans Review, Apalachee Quarterly and elsewhere. She is an associate editor for Mississippi Review Web.

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