Authors: Robin Wasserman
Now here she was, hiding for the third time, in a cramped closet with this boy Daniel’s scrawny body wrapped around her, as if his lean arms and brittle bones would somehow protect her own. And she let him do it, play protector, imagine that he could stop the wind.
She had to get out of this town. That was her prime directive, the necessity that drove her through every day. Jule had a lifetime of reasons to hate Kansas, but topping her list was its landscape, its
the way the yellow-green prairie droned on and on as if to bully the eye into accepting that there was and could be nothing else. A world of flatness and corn, a life of leaky trailers and arrest records: all resistance futile. Bad enough she had to live in Oleander; she refused to die here.
The closet was tiny and crowded with cleaning supplies. Not enough space for one person, much less two. A mop handle jabbed her back, and everything smelled like bleach. Outside, it sounded like the world was coming to an end. They stayed put.
“It’ll be okay,” Daniel said, sounding unconvinced.
“How do you know?”
“But you thought if you said it out loud like you did, that would, what? Make it true?” She didn’t know why she felt such an urge to be a bitch. It probably had something to do with the prospect of getting blown out of existence – and doing so like
in a closet, with a stranger and a mop.
“I thought I should comfort you.”
She laughed. And the blessed dark meant he wouldn’t see the flush that crept across her face.
her. When was the last time someone had dared try that?
“So what if it’s not?” she said.
“Not okay. Let’s say we die here. Right now.”
“That’s not going to —”
“The roof caves in and I get hit in the head and die, like, instantly. But you’re trapped under the debris, and your legs are crushed, and —”
“Can you please stop?”
“—you just have to
there, next to my corpse, waiting.” She didn’t want to stop. She wanted to push him and push him until the ridiculous Dudley Do-Right facade broke and something real came through. “And you can hear them above you, search and rescue, but you’re too weak to scream, and you lie there day after day until the oxygen runs out and you —”
“Enough.” There was no anger, only exhaustion. Like he expected her crap, everyone’s crap, and had long ago decided to roll over and take it. “Please.”
“What do you think would be the worst thing?”
“I’d guess dying a virgin.”
a virgin, right?” Sometimes she hated herself.
But it won her a sigh. “What are you trying to do?”
“Comfort you,” she said.
And, to her surprise, he laughed. He had a nice one. It was lighter than the rest of him. It made her hate herself just a little less.
It seemed like they were done talking then. His breathing was quiet, like the rest of him.
“I’ve done that, you know,” he said. “Lie next to a corpse.”
“I know that,” she said, because everyone did.
“It’s not like you imagine it. Not like in the movies or anything. Dead people. Bodies. They’re… it’s not like the movies.”
“Yeah. I know that, too.”
Unlike Daniel, Jule was not famous for her role in the killing day. The trailer park’s murder-suicide of James Prevette and Gloria No Last Name wasn’t a secret so much as it was a nonevent, compared to the deaths of all those upstanding citizens in other parts of town. As far as Oleander was concerned, a sordid business like “whatever that man did to his wife” (it was rarely remembered that Gloria had been the one with the knife) was just Prevette business as usual. Translation: no one cared.
“Your aunt and uncle?” Daniel said, almost as if he did.
“She wasn’t my aunt.”
“Okay,” he said.
There was a bone-rattling boom overhead, and then a crash that sounded like it might have been the storefront window blowing in. They clung to each other. It was the first time in a long time that someone’s body had been pressed so close to her own. There was primal comfort in his touch, in his warm breath and the rise and fall of his chest against hers – something pre-rational in her response to the visceral pleasure of flesh on flesh. She wondered at that, the delusion that seemed programmed into the DNA: that no matter how flimsy a shield the human body made, the simple act of embrace, of feeble arms wrapped around narrow chest, signaled protection. It seemed counterproductive to the survival of the species that something so useless, and dangerous more often than not, could feel so safe.
The emergency lighting, powered by the Wests’ backup generator, cast the storm cellar in a dim blue light. It glimmered off the jars that lined the walls, cranberry, raspberry, and strawberry preserves all carefully shelved and ripening for winter.
West’s mother was crying.
She always did that when tornadoes passed through town. She hugged her son, and he let her, thinking that this was his father’s job. But his father was fiddling with the generator, his back to his wife and son, his mind on more important things than comfort.
“What if it’s all gone?” his mother whimpered. “The house, the barn, everything?”
“It’s not.” As many times as he’d found himself in this position, West still didn’t quite know how to get the job done. When girls cried, you stroked their hair and rubbed their back and touched your foreheads together to reassure them, eye to eye, lip to lip, that all would be fine. But this wasn’t a girl; it was his mother. He liked that she trusted him to comfort her. It suggested she saw him as solid and reliable. As a man. He just wished he were better at playing the part. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,” he added, because he knew the words would buoy her; because she wasn’t the only one who needed something to hold on to.
“Your kingdom come, your will be done,” they murmured together as the winds gusted and the ceiling shook. “On earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
The words warmed him, as they did every night, an incantation against the darkness.
“You’re a good son, you know that?” his mother said. “A good man.” Even in the dim light, he couldn’t face her. He’d never been able to stand the way her eyes looked all filled up with tears. The way she pinned him with a stare that said her happiness rested on his shoulders. There was supposed to be a house full of sons – rowdy, filthy boys that would have eaten her out of house and home, she said, often, to convince him and herself how pleased she was with just the one. Instead, there were trips to the hospital and antidepressants and tiny grave markers and, in the end, one son, who would never be enough, and had no right to stop trying.
“Tell your son how proud you are of him,” she called to his father.
“I’m proud of you, West.” He finally gave up on the generator and took over, encircling both of them in his wide embrace.
“And we love you, sweetie,” West’s mother said, squeezing tighter.
His father grunted agreement.
“Love you guys, too.” West reminded himself they only wanted what was best for him. That’s what parents were for.
Cass was on the floor, a sheet dampened with toilet water plastered over her nose and mouth. It wouldn’t buy her much time. Her eyes burned in the smoke; tears streamed down her cheeks.
Her chest hurt. She didn’t want to die without remembering what she’d done.
She didn’t want to die.
She closed her eyes. Thinking:
it’ll be better.
Tough to be worse.
She heard a woman’s voice speak her name.
Between its five churches, Oleander had several hundred God-fearing Christian congregants, and none of them had ever raised the suggestion that the Lord might be a woman. Despite this, Cass let herself entertain the idea that she might already be dead. Then soft hands closed over hers and pulled her to her feet. A mask was slipped over her face, and cool, pure oxygen streamed into her lungs. Cass opened her burning eyes, squinting through the haze. The doctor whose name she had never learned yanked her toward the doorway. She said something incomprehensible, her face muzzled by a respiration mask of her own. Her meaning was clear: Time to get the hell out.
They ran down a long corridor. Flames licked the walls. They passed no open doors. They rescued no other patients.
But the facility wasn’t empty. They rounded a corner, pushed through a pair of double steel doors, left the fire mercifully behind, and emerged into a large, high-ceilinged room. It was about twice the size of the high school cafeteria. It was filled with dead bodies.
And some that weren’t quite dead, not yet, despite having holes in them, with fluids and things leaking out.
There were doctors, marked by their white coats.
There were soldiers. Lots of soldiers. Lots of guns.
The doctor, Cass’s doctor, snatched one from the hand of a soldier who had no more face, just a fleshy crater atop a blood-spattered uniform. “Don’t look,” she shouted to Cass. “We can’t stop. We can’t help them.”
Cass didn’t want to help them; she wanted to throw up.
There was a siren blaring. Some of the bodies were writhing and twitching, their mouths working, fishlike, to breathe or to pray. Cass suspected the noise of the alarm was covering up other noises, final gasps whistling through broken lungs, moans and whimpers, pleas for help. She was glad of it.
She was, though the smoke hadn’t yet penetrated this room, still crying.
“What happened to them?” she asked, but there was no answer, and no choice but to pick her way through the bodies, not so delicately that she didn’t crush a finger here or a belly there under her feet. Surely, a good person would try to save these people, whatever harm it might mean to herself.
Cass had given up on thinking of herself as a good person.
There was so much blood.
From behind the double doors, there was a crack of gunfire, and then another. Cass took the doctor’s hand. They ran away.
They made it to the parking lot and the doctor shoved her into a black SUV, then jumped behind the wheel. The wind was blowing fiercely, and it was only when the swirling clouds parted enough to let through a sliver of sunlight that Cass realized it was daytime. The doctor gunned the engine and floored it, and the SUV rocketed across the parking lot, barreling straight through the wooden gate at a deserted guard post. It had started to rain, water gushing down with the force of her parents’ superpowered showerhead. The SUV skidded down a muddy bank, tipping precariously as the doctor took the turn onto the main road far too quickly. Then tires gripped concrete, and they were on their way… somewhere. Cass twisted around for her first and final look at her home for the last year, barely able to make out the outlines of the complex through the mud-spattered back window and the sheets of rain. Nothing about it screamed hospital, or even prison. The three massive buildings were windowless concrete, rising into smokestacks as wide as her house. A gaping chasm stretched between them, and within it a complicated network of piping and drills ripped something from the earth.
She was trying to imagine what its purpose could be when the black funnel glanced off the complex, ripping straight through its steel and concrete exoskeleton, the fleet of SUVs scattering into the sky like a murder of crows. But when, only minutes later, an explosion tore the complex apart, they were miles away, too far to see anything but the fireball that rose into the clouds, and the billowing crimson smoke.
“What the hell was that place?” Cass asked.
Then, because the doctor showed no inclination to respond: “Where are we going?”
“What was I doing there?” she said. “Why aren’t we dead?”
“I’ll explain everything later,” the doctor said. “We have to get you somewhere safe.”
“Why? Why not just leave me there?”
“Because you’re the only one left.”
Any follow-up questions might as well have been cast into the void. The nameless doctor kept her eyes fixed on the windshield, not that there was anything to see. Sheets of rain hid the road ahead; wind buffeted the SUV from lane to lane; the doctor drove faster and faster, far too fast. Her fingers were white and trembling on the wheel, her head shaking, violently, no. And when she did speak, it was as if she were alone.
“It’s not our fault,” she said, more than once. “It wasn’t supposed to be this way.”
“We should get off the road,” Cass told her. There was no safe place to be in a tornado, but some things were
safe, and some things were plain stupid. “We should stop.
The doctor seemed to suddenly remember Cass was in the car. She turned toward the passenger seat, her eyes wide. “It was necessary,” she said softly. “But I’m sorry we did this to you.”
“Did what to me?” Cass asked.
“All of you,” she said, which was no answer at all. Cass held her gaze, and so neither of them saw the uprooted tree until it slammed into the SUV and sent it tumbling off the road.
Beneath the crib, hidden from the storm, Grace slept. Her pale lids twitched. Her head rested on her brother’s yellow blanket, folded neatly and soft beneath her cheek. Her hands curled into fists. She dreamed of blood.
When Cass woke, she was upside down. Still strapped into her seat belt, hanging before a broken windshield. The doctor hung beside her, blood trickling from a slash on her forehead. Cass hurt, everywhere.
Some time had passed; she knew that because the rain had stopped.
The doctor’s eyes opened and, with a grunt of pain, she twisted her head toward Cass. “My arm…,” she croaked. It was pinned by the crumpled door.
Carefully Cass tested each of her limbs: all present and accounted for.