From the backseat, Callie yowls and scratches her claws against the front grate of her carrier. It’s a miracle I even got her in the thing—she hates being cooped up. They say pets take on characteristics of their owners.
I sigh and glance into the rearview mirror, meeting her narrow, yellowed gaze. “I know, girlfriend, I know. We’ll be on the road soon.” My gaze ticks down to the clock on the dash, and my stomach clenches. The bridge is scheduled to close in less than thirty minutes. I flex my fingers around the steering wheel and crane my neck, trying to see around the line of cars in front of me, but it’s growing dark quickly, and the entrance to the bridge is still too far ahead.
The picturesque bridge connecting the island to the rest of North Carolina was one of the reasons I decided to plant my flag here five years ago when I fled my cornstalk-littered hometown the week after graduation. Right now, stuck in standstill traffic for forty minutes in a stuffy car with an irritated cat and a vicious storm threatening to unleash on the coast any minute, it’s anything but appealing. I imagine the rusty joints of the bridge creaking in protest as the wind picks up, workers in thick coats preparing to arrange a concrete barrier. Trapping those of us still in line, leaving us on the island to ride out the approaching hurricane.
This is one of those times I don’t actually need my mother to tell me what I should have done, but I hear her voice in my head all the same.
You should have left town this morning, Hannah, when you told me you did.
Yeah, I know.
Somewhere behind me, an impatient driver lays on their horn, and others follow, a symphony of panic.
Mom, who had never been one for watching the news or reading the paper and had never experienced anything more sinister than a summer thunderstorm, became an amateur meteorologist after I relocated to the East Coast. She used to call me constantly, without regard for the time difference: “Have you seen the new storm system coming straight for you?” To my mother, every storm that forms over the Atlantic Ocean is coming straight for me, like the stratosphere is engaged in a generations-long feud with our family. And when I try to soothe her/blow her off: a weighty sigh, and “I just wish you weren’t so far away.”
Far away was the point. I was the first of my friends to have a cell phone, but it was solely so my mother had a way to reach me 24/7. This is a woman who never allowed me to attend sleepovers or wait alone at the end of the street for the school bus—overbearingly protective behavior that worsened after Dad got sick. When he died, it was like something inside each of us broke. The devastating event that could have—maybe should have—brought us closer only served to drive us apart for good. We never connected, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t still there, hovering, questioning, nagging, picking me up early from parties, wanting the names and phone numbers of my friends’ parents. I thought putting thirteen hundred miles between us would allow me to feel less suffocated. But she was not to be deterred.
She started calling me five times a day as soon as this storm had a name.
“They’re saying Torrance is going to be a big one. Are you planning on leaving the island?”
“The projections are looking scary, Hannah. When are you leaving?”
Then, via FaceTime earlier this morning: “You should leave the island today. Better to be safe than sorry.”
My mother had looked pale and lined. Old. I wondered how long she’d looked this way, how long it had been since I last properly sawher. Christmas, two years prior. I was uncomfortably cold the entire visit, no longer accustomed to frigid Midwestern winters. She and Ron had worn matching buffalo plaid pajamas, and of course, there was a set for me. She had beamed. “Oh, Hannah, we have to take a picture! It’ll be perfect for next year’s card.” I told her the fabric irritated my skin and settled the bundle back under the tree, then found a bottle of cheap red wine in the cabinet and started counting down the hours until I could flee once more for the warmth and solitude of my beachy refuge.
Faced with that haggard, stressed expression, I caved and told Mom that I was heading inland. Her relief was palpable, traveling through the screen and leveling a punch at my heart.
“I’m glad you’ll be safe, but, Hannah, hon, it’s been so long since you visited.”
By design. My life on the island isn’t perfect, but it’s mine. The distance makes it easy to get out of regular visits: airfare is so expensive these days; it’s such a long drive; I’d just have to turn around and head right back the next day. And whenever she promises/threatens a visit of her own: I don’t think I can get out of work; I’d hate for you to spend all that money when I’d hardly be able to see you anyway.
Was it bravery that had me loading all my possessions into the back of a rusted Honda Civic—a car I’d been saving for since I got my first job at fifteen—and driving away? Or did I just want so badly to escape?
It was the first time I saw the ocean, outside of television, or the internet, or a postcard my Aunt Debbie sent when she vacationed in Florida the summer that I turned nine. I’d assigned a lot of things to the ocean over the years: freedom, independence, peace. Digging my toes into the sand that first night, feeling that sticky, salty breeze brush over my cheeks—it was all those things and more.
“Ron and I really think you should just head this way. We’ll cover the gas and anything else that comes up. I already have your room made up for you.”
Hearing that man’s name always makes me grind my teeth. Dad had only been gone six weeks when they met, and he had moved into our house within two months. Of course, I want my mother to be happy; I’m not a monster. I just didn’t want her to be happy so soon. It felt like she was rushing to replace Dad. Like she didn’t even miss him, or our little family.
The worrywarts were already making their way toward the mainland, filling their Jeeps with bulging suitcases and protesting children, but the sky was blue, without a cloud in sight. My neighbor Paul was reclining on our shared patio, the neck of a Corona dangling precariously between two fingers. So, I went for a run instead of packing my own things, shrugging off my mother’s worry, drowning out her nagging with loud music.
I sigh and prop my elbow on the car door, palming my forehead. I should have just left then, but pride stopped me, or some innate need to defy anything perceived as an order. You should leave, she’d said, and inadvertently solidified my resolve to stay behind. You should head this way. I’ve lived through four false alarms in my time on the island, four storms that haven’t been anywhere near as dangerous or violent as the experts predicted.
This storm is coming in quicker than projected, ominous and heavy to the point I can feel the tension in my joints, the pressure in my head. It was so beautiful this morning; now, I’m trying to convince myself I’m not terrified by the gray-green sky, the rising winds, the downpour.
I waited too long to leave, taking my cue from the perpetually unbothered Paul. He sells weed and fake IDs to high schoolers, but I trusted his experience as a townie.
“Pfft,” he’d said, waving a hand when I asked if he was leaving the island. “I’ve been ridin’ these storms out for forty years. It’s never as bad as they say.”
Then everything in town closed up, and a screaming red banner on the TV said that the bridge to the mainland would be closing at 6PM. My mother thought I was already on my way, that I was already safe.
Paul had winked at me as I struggled to fit Callie’s carrier in the backseat, still wearing his mirrored Aviators though thick gray clouds were drawing nearer. “See you on the other side, kid.”
Nestled into the cup holder, my cell phone rings; the tinny tone that signals my mother calling. No one uses dedicated ringtones anymore, but it’s better to have some warning, those ten to twenty seconds to steel myself.
Technically, it’s against the law to talk on a cell phone while driving, and that provides a legitimate reason to ignore the call. But as much as I value solitude, I can’t remember the last time I felt so alone, and I’m not technically driving. I grab my phone, tap at the screen to answer the call, and set it to speaker. “Hey, Mom.”
“Hi, honey. Did you make it out?”
As much as Paul is unbothered by, well, anything, my mother is unbothered by the way I constantly brush her off. Every time we talk, she sounds genuinely excited to hear from me. There has never been a hint of resentment in her voice. I picture her standing at the picture window in the living room, one hand curled around the thick linen curtains as she watches the street for approaching headlights. Forget the fact that it’s a nineteen-hour drive, that I’ll have to stop somewhere at a hotel for the night.
“Yeah, a while ago,” I lie, unconvincingly, to anyone but my mother. “I’m on 74.”
“I can hardly hear you, honey.”
The wind is roaring now, bringing with it a lash of rain that beats at the windshield, a thick sheet of water pushing across the glass. The car rocks amidst a fierce gust, and Callie looses a throaty, frightened sound.
“The things they’re showing on the news are terrifying, Hannah. I’m so glad you got out of there when you did.”
Everything in front of my car is blurry from the rainwater streaming across the windshield, blooms of red taillights breaking through the darkness as the storm presses closer. Someone up ahead has managed to turn around, the hulking SUV passing by at a cautious, creeping speed. Giving up waiting and returning to town, taking shelter before it gets too bad. After a moment, a second car passes, a smaller sedan that gets caught in a violent blast of wind and veers toward me. I squeeze my eyes closed, bracing for impact.
“Hannah? Are you there?”
The impact doesn’t come. I open my eyes. A line of cars has turned back toward town, and now both lanes are unmoving. I’m trapped, with nowhere to go. Sweat gathers under my palm and my hand slips against the wheel. The wind batters the Honda with gust after gust. Throat aching, I cling to the sound of my mother’s voice, an unexpected flood of warmth racing through my veins. I stare out the passenger side window at the roiling ocean and summon one of those lost days from my childhood. Before I felt smothered, before Ron, before illness reared its ugly head.
The three of us crammed into a two-person tent Dad erected in the backyard, a pretend getaway on a Friday night in June. We toasted marshmallows over a small firepit, and I always caught mine on fire while Dad managed to roast his to a perfect caramel brown. My pudgy fingers covered in sticky marshmallow and melted chocolate, and Mom running into the house for Wet Wipes because we were going to sleep so closely, she worried I’d wipe my hands in her hair.
“Do you, uh, do you remember when we used to camp in the backyard?”
“Of course, I do.”
Her tone has softened, and I can tell that she knows. Maybe not that I lied, not that I’m stuck on the island with the world coming down around me, but she knows there’s something wrong that I haven’t told her.
God, there are a hundred things I haven’t told her, because I didn’t want the barrage of questions in return. Demands, solutions. A list of all the things I should have done instead of what I did. I bite down on my lip. Like Pavlov’s bell, this tone of my mother’s tugs at that younger me buried inside, the scared little girl that wants nothing more than to be wrapped in a warm hug.
“I never told you that I think about those nights a lot,” I say. Because I knew she’d find a way to turn it around, that she’d tell me that we are still a family, even with Ron, that we could have had more nights like that if I hadn’t moved so far away. My shoulders tense as I prepare myself for it.
Instead, there is silence on the other end of the line. Only the sound of the wind and rain outside the car, and Callie’s anxious scratching and growling in the backseat.
I look at the screen. The call dropped. In the top left corner, it says No Service.
I choke on a sob, and then begin to cry in earnest.
Callie yowls, a grating, terrified sound. I wonder if I should let her out of the car. She’s small, and animals survive horrific storms all the time. It feels like the humane thing to do, except I don’t want to be alone.
I recognize the sudden, fierce pang in my chest, one I’ve felt frequently over the past few years, but never admitted to. I miss her. In the absence of it, I finally see my mother’s constant pestering for what it truly is: concern. Fear. Maybe it’s not that my dad dying pushed us apart, but that I rejected the way her love evolved after he was gone. The protectiveness that came from being terrified she might lose me too, in a way she could not prevent, could not prepare for.
The phone vibrates in my hand, ringing, and I have never felt so relieved to see ‘Mom’ appear on the screen.
I answer the call but can’t even speak, struggling to catch my breath.
“Hannah? You don’t have to say anything, honey, but I’m going to sit here with you as long as you need it. Okay?”
The rain stops as suddenly as it started as the storm settles, if only momentarily. The line of cars inches forward, and in a wash of muted sunlight, I catch sight of the bridge entrance ahead, flaggers waving us through.
“Okay. Thanks, Mom.” I bite down on my lip. “I love you.”
Image: Tropical Storm Beryl (2012) Wikicommons