I’ve been working diligently these last weeks trying to get back at a lengthy piece of fiction, but real events keep diverting my attention. Strong bits of reality that dwarf anything I can imagine writing, too large and grotesque to be believed real, keep kicking at the door.
It’s just happened again, and this one is so powerful that it is already like a living creature burrowing into my mind, preying on my imagination. I need to record it immediately, purge its spirit at least momentarily, because I surely intend to dilute its power and use it in tamer work later, though as fiction it may be too unbelievable. It is not a pretty story, and it ends in a confused knot.
But it is true.
A very intimate and good of mine whom I’ll call Bernadette – using real names here wouldn’t be right – was the reigning television executive for a national broadcasting group, and until recently she managed to keep her residence here in her hometown, New Orleans. We’ve worked together for thirteen years, and she’s always on the lookout for ways to get me decent writing work in the TV business. She is married to a handsome Latin chef named Luis, who now has a pair of wonderful restaurants in the city.
These two adults are very busy, but have had time to raise two children of their own, a seven-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl. Bernadette & Luis love their kids and are good parents, but they often seem dogged by Fate. Luis has lost close relatives under disturbing circumstances in Spain and Mexico in recent years, and last Fall their young daughter had a finger bitten off in a freak accident. A tame rented horse removed one of the digits of her right hand while she was dismounting from a ride on the public bridle path at a public park. This was only one incident. Odd things have been happening to the family as a matter of course.
Bernadette and Luis tried to let off some of the pressure on their urban lives and their demanding occupations by getting a small piece of land in the nearby Mississippi foothills and building a cottage on it for family weekend getaways. Luis did all the construction work by hand, even digging a fish pond, and it proved great therapy for all of them. The kids loved going up there, and so did Bernadette & Luis. Recently they had planned to take four days off – closing the restaurants late Saturday night to drive up, and not returning until Wednesday morning – after the long weekend. They wanted to spend the time relaxing in the woods around the Mississippi cottage.
But early in the morning on the Saturday they had planned to leave, their young son started coming down with something. Bernadette took him to see the doctor, and the boy was prescribed an antibiotic to break his illness and relieve the fever. He took the first dose of his medicine shortly after noon. By three o’clock he was starting to feel worse. By five his fever was rising even faster. His parents called the doctor back.
“Better bring him in,” the doctor said.
By the time they got to the doctor’s office at 5:30pm, the boy’s whole body was breaking out in inch-wide blisters filled with fluid, and he was lapsing in and out of consciousness. The doctor took one look, grabbed his coat, and told them he’d follow them as they drove the child straight to the hospital.
The boy’s extremely rare reaction to a very common medicine dropped him spiraling into a deep coma, and the blisters continued to grow until they were almost two inches square. The horrible paper-thin bags not only covered his skin, but the inside of his mouth and the underside of his eyelids. The doctors told his parents to prepare for the worst on the third day, and notified the hospital priest on Monday night. Bernadette and Luis called the immediate family, gathering their strength for what might be their son’s last night on earth.
But at 11:53 that Monday night, to everyone’s surprise and relief, the child’s fever broke. With the rest of her family at hand, Bernadette watched the nurse make the notation of the time and his improving condition on her child’s chart, and swore to God in front of all of them that she’d start going back to church if he pulled through. Six hours later, the boy came back to consciousness and recognized his mother. Throughout the day, though, he still intermittently blacked out from the pain, in spite of medication.
But he became better at an amazing rate. After a week, his blisters began to dry, leaving a blackened crust where they had been. His parents worried quietly that in spite of his recovery he would have terrible life-long wounds remaining underneath the skin.
He became more coherent. After twelve days – with his mother and father sleeping the entire time in a hospital bed in the adjoining room – he sat up in bed, and the black skin began to fall from his body like the cocoon from a butterfly. He’d lost all his freckles, but the skin that was revealed was new and smooth like a baby’s. He became playful and himself again, just like he was before the illness. If anything, he seemed happier, like the world was shinier and better for his having survived.
That Friday, after two weeks in the hospital, they took him home. He was still weak, but recovering with all the elasticity of a well-loved child.
It was two days later, Sunday, that Bernadette was calm enough to start catching up on the weeks’ worth of messages on her answering machine. She had only listened to about half of them when she came upon an urgent message from the nearest neighbor of their farm in Picayune, Mississippi. She called her husband in the room after she heard the tone of the woman’s voice.
“Bernadette,” the recording started, “it’s Lettie Newton. I hope you’re there. If you are, I hate to have to tell you this, but I’m really glad for the opportunity. We just got away with it ourselves. It was the most frightening thing that’s happened in our whole lives. Oh God, I hope you’re there in New Orleans listening to this. I’ll just act like you are.
“Listen: a tornado blew through here late Monday night, two weeks ago, while everyone was sleeping, oh, about midnight, and I know you and Luis and the kids were planning to be up here, but I didn’t see you Sunday, so maybe you weren’t. I hope. Anyway, that damned tornado took your house and all the trees around it for nearly fifty yards and carried them off to who knows where. There’s only your concrete slab and a bare hilltop on your land. Not a piece of furniture, not a stick of timber or a log support. It’s all gone. Every bit. Please, please, please call us when you get this message.
“Bye now, and I pray you’re alright.”
A tornado, “around midnight”. Their son’s fever had broken at 11:53pm.
If they hadn’t been at his side in the hospital, the whole family would have been in the house.
But the last message on the answering machine was from their insurance agent of 20 years. He’d already heard about the tornado. “Sad to have to be the one to tell you, Luis,” he said, “and I know that we insure everything you’ve got in Louisiana, but the home office called to tell me that the insurance on your cottage lapsed at 12:01am the Saturday before the storm. You must have forgotten the separate payment ‘cause it’s in Mississippi. I understand, but there’s nothing I can do. So sorry.”
Too grotesque a story, too elaborate a Fate, for fiction. It wouldn’t seem real.
I had dinner with the family one month to the day from when the tornado touched down in Picayune. Their son was to return to school Wednesday. He couldn’t wait to tell his second-grade classmates about his family’s adventure: their house had been blown down.