Royal Thunder starts blaring in the truck and for a second it sounds like we’re at the EARL, but East Atlanta’s hundreds of miles away, and I can’t turn the music off fast enough. Dad’s hunched over by the door, waiting, shaking his head. He’s stick thin, shrouded in flannel and oxygen and extra socks. I get the radio stopped, get out to help. We shuffle to the truck and I lift him inside and then climb back into the driver’s seat.
He fumbles around with the seat belt until I reach over and take it. It clicks into place and I let go quick, leaving his hand working at nothing. He is staring at the dash. I look up and see the sketch of my latest tattoo taped there, the little girl from RASL making the “derp” face, staring back at him wide-eyed and crazy. Dad looks over and sneers.
“When did you become a pervert,” he says, and I have no idea if he means it or not.
“Don’t worry, dad,” I say. “It’ll be like when they took Michael Landon’s bad ass car away from him on Highway to Heaven, but when he got there he got to eat mashed potatoes on the beach with Jesus and Pamela Anderson.”
He turns his head to glare at me. “Can you even hear yourself?” he says.
Mom is in the backseat and if she hears any of this she doesn’t respond. She looks out the window and picks at the cuticle on her thumb. It is raw and bleeding and has been for days. I can’t see the fingers lying in her lap but I can feel her working at it. She reaches up and adjusts the plastic tube where it rubs at her lip and looks at me in the rearviewmirror.
“What is it, mom,” I say.
“Can I smoke?” she says.
“Not right now, mom,” I say, and she goes back to staring out the window, goes back to picking at the jagged flesh around her nail. I put the truck in drive and pull away from the house, worrying about whatever stupid shit we forgot instead of what we are fixing to do. I turn the radio on, turn it down fast. I change it to country gold and bring the volume up a little. Mom stares out one window and dad stares out another, none of us smoking, none of us saying anything at all.
The day is long and the shadows are bleeding into night as we return. The sky is orange above us and already I know what’s coming but I keep quiet, help dad out of the truck. I walk close behind him and keep one hand up against his back and with the other I fumble around in my pocket for more pills. I take them quick and when he stumbles over the threshold I use both hands to hold him up and guide him to his chair. His skin is paper thin and he winces at my grasp.
“Too hard,” he says.
“Sorry, dad,” I say. Mom comes in with the sound of her breath rattling in her chest and leaking out around her. She sits in a heap on the couch and pulls the oxygen from her nose, pushes the tank away and then gets up and staggers off down the hall. I look over at dad and his mouth is wide open and his eyes are closed and I wonder how many more times we can do this.
I change the portable oxygen out for the machine in the house and dad sleeps through it all and I wake him up and tell him to come on and I help him down the hall to bed. Mom comes out of the bathroom reeking of smoke and stumbles against me and for a moment I am holding both of them in my arms and thinking about the orange sky.
Just before the storm the power goes out and for a moment everything goes silent and still. Then the air raid sirens start in the distance, and the oxygen machines do the same, screeching until I burst in and pull the plug on them both. I am undressed and it is dark and hot and I can’t see shit and already dad is calling me from the back of the house.
I fumble around in the dark and find the portable tanks, empty from this afternoon. I sit in the living room floor and fuck with them, blind. Mom is more doped up than I am, unconscious on the couch, and already she is taking ragged breaths in the pitch black. I get one tank fixed as dad continues to shout weakly from the bedroom.
I lean over my mother and change out her tube for the one that works. I sit down in the floor and work with the other tank until it starts spitting out air and sweat runs into my eyes and I try to wipe it out but I’m not wearing any clothes and my arm is already slick and it just makes everything worse. The wind is picking up outside the house and whipping things across the yard.
I get to the back and get dad sorted out and carry him into the hall. I sit him in a chair and leave him while I go after mom. I beg her to come on, but she just lays there and then I’m screaming at her to get the fuck up but she can’t hear me. I bend down and snatch her off the couch but I think it’s two years and a hundred pounds ago and she up flies into my arms, this shell of a woman that used to be my mother, and I go stumbling backward in the dark. Everything has gone statue still and now the attic fan begins to rattle above my father in the hallway and I run with my mother and lay her down on the dirty carpet. She starts to moan and I reach out for dad and pull him to me, lift him out of the chair and down onto the floor.
The house starts to creak and I can feel my father clutching hard against my chest as my mother comes to and starts crawling down the hall. “Hey. Where you going?” I say. She doesn’t respond and I ask her again as the tornado tears the roof from the house next door.
“I’m going to smoke,” she shouts over the sound of it, and disappears around the corner as I crouch there holding my father and hoping the goddamn thing will kill us all.
In the morning we make our way back to the truck. Dad stares at the little girl from RASL making the “derp” face, and as I brace myself for what he’s about to say, he asks me if it’s my wife.
“No, dad . . . that’s . . . not her,” I say.
“Well tell her it looks just like her,” he says, and I put the truck in drive and pull away from the house for the last time. “Who told you they were gone have mashed potatoes?” he says. Mom sits in the backseat and picks at the flesh around her thumb. The neighborhood is destroyed, but if she sees any difference she says nothing. I listen to her breathe for as long as I can stand it, and this time when I turn on the radio, from the cracked vinyl seat behind me I can hear her start to sing along.