By Marina Flores
My mother and I are fascinated by natural disasters and geologic phenomenon. From the comfort of our couch, we watch television shows and documentaries about people who chase storms for a living, putting their lives in danger for a thrill, or for the sake of research and entertainment. Other days, we watch Deadline to Disaster, a television series that tells minute-by-minute stories of individuals who survived disastrous weather. How, for example, one woman hid in a Starbucks restroom from a tornado, the entire building blown over as if the walls were made of paper. Or the two teenagers who sheltered in a school basement with twenty of their elementary-school-aged summer camp students, unable to show a shred of fear in front of the kids when the roof flew off. Some stories move us to tears, the hands-over-mouth kind that leave us in silence.
During commercial breaks, the two of us discuss what we would do in particular situations. The footage on my television screen plays back in my head like a film: in the distance, a dark, belted mass appears and touches both the sky and the earth in one stretch. We wouldn’t waste time trying to record the stupid tornado, that’s for sure, my mother mentions. How many items could we grab in five minutes or less? In the moment I imagine we’d grab my grandfather’s album full of documentation of his deployment in the Vietnam War, my newly framed and hung diploma, and perhaps the last few existing photographs of my grandparents at their wedding. I wonder if we’d drive into the endless void of swollen clouds with other important documents and dog food thrown into the back of my mother’s silver Rav4, our eyes feasting on skies streaked with uncertainty.
That same night I settle in bed, deep in a cocoon of blankets, my mind still turning over our hypothetical list of precautions. What happens when a tornado rips through cities at night, its funnel only visible if the sky flashes whiteish-purple with branches of lightning? My mind is a sky on the Fourth of July. I drift off to my swirling thoughts, the whirr of an owl’s coo not too far from my window. Once everything goes dark and mine and my mother’s bodies are at rest, the phenomena continue.
I’m standing in what looks like my living room, behind our sofa, in front of my great-grandmother’s antique wooden piano. My extremities tingle all over. Straight ahead, not too far beyond our double French doors, are nothing but low, distended clouds that hang from the sky like a string of damaged Christmas lights. The misty sky looks textured, almost rigid, and with a greenish hue. This twister touches the earth, growling at me, first turning slow like a carnival ride, then enraged and rumbling toward our home. I’m frozen in place, unable to move. Even inside, my clothing tugs away from the corners of my body, as if an invisible force called the garments away from me. In a matter of seconds, I’ve locked eyes with this steadily growing tornado, the outskirts of its rage on the doorstep of my dreams. The back of my eyes sting, and I long for brassy Texas sunrises accompanied by sweet, cotton candy skies. Glass shatters. It’s too late to seek shelter. As the violent winds whip and collide with my home, stripping the roof shingle by shingle with its invisible hands, I close my eyes to surrender.
According to Weird Earth and Storm Stories, tornadoes sound a lot like trains, but many witnesses and survivors disagree with this myth. In fact, one survivor said the tornado didn’t sound like a train at all. Ideally, meteorologists and other weather experts like Jim Cantore instruct people to seek shelter in a windowless room. Don’t hide beneath highway overpasses or near windows, they say, and cover your head. Apparently, hiding beneath an overpass is worse than staying inside a vehicle because there is a greater risk of serious injury or death by flying debris, some with the strength of missiles. Scientists say that these twisting vortexes can produce damaging winds up to two hundred miles per hour, extending up to one mile wide. Depending on the conditions, some manifest into skinny, narrow tornadoes and emerge from the clouds the way snakes slither out from the grass.
According to some random dream interpretation website my mother and I stumbled upon years ago, dreams about tornadoes supposedly reflect the level of chaos in life. We speculated whether this was true or whether some fortune teller posted this information to fool people like us, that there is much deeper meaning behind the wandering of our subconscious. Like my mother, I, too, experienced a recurring nightmare where tornadoes chased me into the oblivion. I’d run on foot through a city that looked as if it could appear in The Jetsons, flying cars and all.
I’m at a birthday party. Everyone there is faceless. This place resembles a steakhouse my family likes, and I recognize the plaid tablecloths. Four red, windowless walls enclose me, but someone manages to pry open the emergency exit door. First, a thick curtain of rain washes over the earth. Together we marvel at the sky as a thin, black figure spills from the clouds with a deafening growl. Screams erupt. The mass spins toward us, ready to peel back roofs like a layer of skin to find me. I run to warn my mother about the whirling entity outside. The tornado tosses vehicles to the side and uproots fences like toothpicks. As my mother and I grab hands to run, the tornado swallows the building. I feel the pulsating heart of the monster in my chest, its teeth sunken into my dream’s soft flesh.
Something was after my mother in her dreams, too, but I considered these nightmares to be manifestations of stress. For years, she was the kind of parent who brought home stress like heavy luggage. It turns out that the responsibility of raising a child alone and managing a small business takes a toll on the mind and body. Even from my earliest memories, it’s always been just us two: the mother-daughter duo. Like characters in my favorite novels, I read her body language and instantly know if she had a decent or terrible day at work by the length of her first sigh or the way she sets her purse down on the kitchen countertop.
I get my impatience and rather opinionated nature from her, a lover of eighties rock music, the Dallas Cowboys, and overcrowded Las Vegas casinos. Over the years, she mothered me through a nasty custody battle with my estranged father, through my grandfather’s two heart attacks and triple bypass surgery, through her chronic illness that—after my hospitalization nearly a year later—would eventually become mine, too. She’s a mother that’ll haul ass to come rescue me when I have a panic attack during my freshman pre-calculus class on the floor of the women’s restroom; a mother that’ll unload on me when I promise for the third time that I’ll do the dishes; a mother that’ll still make homemade Mexican rice after a ten-hour day at the office.
The two of us have our tougher conversations at the dinner table. Here, she shares details of disturbing nightmares with me. Snakes make nests in dresser drawers, slithering into one another as if tying their bodies in a knot, and tornadoes appear in every direction. When someone my mother loves or cares about dies in her dreams, she looks down at the table—at her half-eaten plate, the utensils, or the salt and pepper shakers—before tears well up in her eyes and roll down her cheeks. She never tells me who dies or in what way, but I wonder if she sees rumbling tornadoes that leave pathways of destruction, too. Or perhaps she sees the aftermath: our newly built house flattened like a bug beneath a shoe. In these moments, all I have to offer as comfort is my presence, my body. I suggest that she not watch those paranormal shows on the Travel Channel before bed. She cracks a smile from behind a veil made of worry. Still, I imagine she wakes suddenly in the early morning hours out of breath, pillow drenched, sometimes with a lingering sensation of déjà vu.
I’m in my room, my chest pounding. Both eyes fling open and scan the things around me: pillow with drool stains, a lamp with plastic over its shade, the cluttered white dresser. It’s morning, and I exhale like a deflated balloon at the thought. From bed, I attempt to predict what the time is based on how many ribbons of light are or aren’t shining through the edges of my curtains. My eyesight adjusts, and I make a mental note that I again dreamt of tornadoes. The hair on the back of my neck is matted with sweat. Groggy, I stare at the ceiling fan as if my dream is still within arm’s reach, but I see nothing.
I pull myself from the dizzying state as tiny needles prick the surface of my skin. Usually, I spend the first few minutes awake, putting the pieces of my terrifying dream together the way I would an intricate puzzle that I know is missing pieces. One by one, my eyes blink through the fuzzy scenes. Each sinister tornado preys closer and closer, the beast cloaked in black.
Later, as my body processes the heaviness of panic, the faces of tornado survivors from Deadline to Disaster flash through my mind: the UPS driver who abandoned his truck and ran for cover in Bondurant, Iowa; the married couple whose truck was flipped from a rural Arkansas road; the Rowlett, Texas, residents who took refuge in their neighbor’s storm shelter with seconds to spare. Again, I’m reminded of the rubble, the piles of wreckage and heartbreak that tornadoes leave behind, much like the individuals who are spared, and those who are not. Survivors have no choice but to continue on, to rebuild their lives brick by brick, shingle by shingle. Then I think of my mother, our nightmares, and the unexplainable phenomena that we somehow find equally terrifying and beautiful. How no one—not scientists, meteorologists, experts, nor everyday people—can predict the weather every single time. In the end, of course, we all start and end our days in houses made of paper.
Marina Flores is a creative nonfiction writer, amateur baker, and full-time dog mom. She holds a Master of Arts in Literature, Creative Writing, and Social Justice. Her words have appeared in Empty Mirror, Atlas and Alice, and X-R-A-Y. Currently, Marina is a first-year English Language Arts teacher at a high school in her hometown of San Antonio, Texas. She can be found sharing her existential thoughts on Twitter from @marinathelibra.