Read The Waking Dark Online

Authors: Robin Wasserman

The Waking Dark (8 page)

“Help me,” the doctor whispered as Cass released herself from the seat belt and climbed out of the SUV, trying her best to avoid the shards of glass. Her head and neck throbbed, and her face stung in a hundred places, but she could stand, and she could walk.

Cass had no phone, but probably the doctor did, somewhere, and Cass could call for help. She could do her best, in the meantime, to tend to the doctor’s wounds. And then whoever came would summon the police, and they would recognize her, and take her back to a cell, and lock the door, and she would be alone again, forever.
Or.
She could get away, find somewhere to hide until it was safe. The hospital, or whatever it had been, was gone. And for all anyone knew – anyone but this doctor, trapped in a wreck of her own making – Cass was gone with it. No one would be searching for her. Not for some time, at least.

She looked up, and there was the sky, right where she’d left it all those months ago.

There were trees, and grass, and road, and mud.

She could not go back.

“I’m sorry,” she told the doctor, who knew better than anyone about the bad thing hidden inside of Cass. It was the universal imperative, right?
To thine own self be true.

“Don’t go,” the doctor said. “Please.”

But she had also said:
We
did
this
to
you.

This:
Something Cass didn’t understand. Something that had made her this person who could stand by this wreckage and look at this woman trapped inside, helpless and bleeding – and walk away.

The majority of tornadoes to strike the country register a zero on the Enhanced Fujita scale, meaning the rotating columns of wind spin no faster than a breezy 85 miles per hour and tear off the occasional tree branch or picnic blanket. Most of the rest qualify as EF-1 tornadoes, with winds between 86 and 110 miles per hour, gusts that can shove a car off the road. The tornado that touched down in the southwest corner of Oleander, Kansas, at 2:31 that Thursday afternoon, cutting a diagonal swath across the town before curving slightly to the north, jumping the Nanimwe River, and dissipating into the atmosphere about twenty miles down the road, rated an EF-5. To qualify for that category – which only one or two storms a year manage to do – wind speeds must exceed 200 miles per hour. At that speed, a funnel of wind can lift a car, strip the bark off a tree, or atomize a house. As the inventor of the scale put it, when a Category 5 storm strikes,
incredible
phenomena
will
occur.

By 2:45 that afternoon, more than forty of Oleander’s houses had been ripped from their foundations and turned to dust. Four of the town’s five churches were rubble. The north wing of the town hall, built in 1907, collapsed. The town green, which had been home to a gazebo, a playground, and a small pond perfect for duck feeding in the daytime and old-fashioned necking at night, was now a debris field, littered with concrete, broken telephone poles, tree limbs, flat tires, and roof lumber shot out by the storm. The tornado had sliced straight through the graveyard, spitting up bodies in its wake and distributing them as far as a mile away. For several days, it was not unusual to find a rotting face peering out from the trees. Mayor Mouse’s car was found, in nearly perfect working order, on the firehouse roof. Much of Main Street was spared, but Elmo’s Luncheonette, the Hardware Shack, the Cut-N-Edge, and everything else between Fourth Street and Seventh Street were a lost cause.

Tornadoes, unlike hurricanes, do not get named. A hurricane is an unwelcome houseguest, one you see coming. You can watch it from afar, learning its habits and its nature. The hurricane is the enemy you know well enough to hate, the lover who inevitably betrays. The tornado is the stranger at the door with a knife. It has no features, no habits, no face.

Names have power; to name something is to domesticate it, or to try. Naming a tornado would be like naming a shadow. What happened in Oleander that day was simply
the
storm.
A cloud that faded back into sky before it had a chance to enjoy what it had wrought.

 

The power was still out when Jule made her way to the trailer park, trudging along deserted roads, stepping over downed power lines, and avoiding eye contact with the dazed survivors who’d ventured out to see what remained of the town. Sparking live wires snaked across the street, and several of the houses that weren’t yet burning emitted a strong natural-gas smell that didn’t bode well. Broken
things
littered the concrete, torn notebook pages scribbled with homework, a smashed picture frame, half of a bed frame, a large red valentine heart carefully inscribed with a child’s “I love you.” Shredded American flags dangled from broken branches. One car had been wrapped so tightly around a tree trunk that its fender and bumper kissed. People staggered past her, caked with mud or plaster or blood. One man had a fork embedded in his cheek.

She never forgot the smell. It was the smell of nature gone wrong: grass and leaves and manure churned up by the wind, animal entrails and unearthed corpses, wet wood, must and mold from the heart of demolished buildings, lake water flung too far ashore and trees stripped of their bark. And beneath it all, a breath of the unnameable, with the metallic tang of blood and earth – as if something ancient had been violently dredged up from below.

It took Jule an hour to make it back to the compound and discover what the storm had left behind: nothing. The handful of trailers that remained were toppled from their concrete blocks, some crushed like tin cans. The triple-padlocked door of her uncles’ secret lair had torn from its hinges and embedded itself in the trunk of a poplar tree. Near the edge of the woods, a fire burned, puffing up noxious clouds of smoke. The cops were reluctant to bust meth labs, Uncle Scott had once told her. The chemicals were both highly flammable and highly toxic, and more than one inexpert bust had ended in conflagration.

She stayed clear of the flames and tried not to inhale too deeply.

Overhead, her frayed underwear dangled from a tree.

“Mom?” Her thin, wavering voice couldn’t have traveled far. Maybe, she told herself, that was why it got no response. “Uncle… Scott?” A little louder this time. Scott would have taken charge, as he always did. He would know what to do. But no answer came from the smoking ruins.

Jule sank to the muddy ground, and surveyed the broken land that was her only home. She stayed there in the gathering dark, steeling herself, until finally, there was no delaying it anymore. She rose, approached the nearest pile of twisted aluminum wreckage, and began the search for bodies.

 

Of the town’s churches, there was only one whose interior remained intact and whose sanctuary and wooden cross were unharmed, which was strange – for the roof had been neatly sheared off. Left open to the elements for nearly the entire duration of the storm, the church below bore no scars of what had raged overhead.

This is what Deacon Wally Barnes found when he set out to investigate his masterwork. A church watched over by open sky, and beneath it, a girl, sitting poker straight in a wooden pew, hands clasped and eyes fixed on the sanctuary as if waiting for the sermon of her life. The deacon spoke her name. When there was no response, he sat beside her. The crown of broken glass in her hair glinted in the twilight sun. But, except for a narrow cut on her pale cheek, she appeared unharmed. A trail of dried blood traced a line down her face.

“Eleanor,” he said again. “Ellie.” She looked no older now than the day she’d been delivered to his doorstep three years before in dire need of guidance and cleansing. They had struggled then, but he had eventually delivered her from need. He had shown her the way.

She blinked once, slowly, like a princess stirring from a trance.

He pressed his lips to her forehead in benediction, and she awoke.

She looked at him strangely, as if she could see
into
him, including and especially the parts no one was ever meant to see. She peered straight through him with those strange, muddy eyes, and a smile played on her lips. “Yes,” she said, as if in answer – and the deacon, who before taking on the cloth had killed a man bare-handed, a man who’d been drunk, surly, and nearly twice his size, looked at this skinny, wet seventeen-year-old girl, and was afraid.

“Yes what?”

She blinked again, and the strange look was gone. “Is it over?” she said.

“The storm? Yes, it’s over.”

She looked around, and smiled. “Then it worked. The church is safe.”

“Well…” He tipped his head toward the nonexistent ceiling. “In a matter of speaking.”

Ellie stood. “Then I guess I can go.” She sounded foggy, half asleep.

“Did you get trapped here, when it started?”

“I came here to watch over it through the storm, as He told me to.”

“Who did?”

Ellie glanced to the missing roof – no, to the sky. “
He
did.”

The deacon cleared his throat. “You’re telling me…
God
called on you to watch over the church?”

She nodded.

He surveyed the damage above, and the lack thereof below. Maybe just some trick of the shifting wind. Or maybe the Lord had stopped turning a deaf ear and finally taken notice of this festering town. He wanted to believe that – it should have been easy for him to believe that. But it would also mean believing that the Lord had passed him over, and put His faith in this girl. Offered this girl the gift Wally Barnes had waited so long, and so desperately, to receive.

Envy was not his only sin, but it was his ugliest.

And yet… he had prayed for a sign. Pleaded for some confirmation, no matter how slight, that his work wasn’t in vain. That he had not been abandoned. If he could believe that God had whispered in this girl’s ear – and he
had
to believe it – then wasn’t it possible to believe He’d meant the whisper to spread? As the deacon so often told his flock, signs came in many forms.

He took Ellie’s hand in his own.

“You aren’t the only one with a mission from the Lord today, Ellie.”

“He sent you here, too?”

“Yes. But not for the church.” He waited.

“He sent you… for me.”

“As He sent you to me.” The deacon stood with her, still holding her hand, in the church he had built with his will and his craft, and he looked up, and saw no limit.

 

Reports had the Preacher wandering into the storm, raising his arms to the rain, and furiously chanting lines from
King
Lear.
The latter was probably poetic license on the part of witnesses eager for a good story, even in the face of calamity. But Daniel knew his father, and the rhetorical extravagance had a ring of truth. Not that it mattered. Shakespeare spouting or not, the Preacher had been consumed by the wind, and Daniel didn’t have time to care, because the Preacher wasn’t the only Ghent unaccounted for.

No one had seen Milo – not his camp counselors, who’d sent the kids home early, and not his mother, who’d belatedly shown up to claim him.

“I thought he’d be with you,” Giuliana told Daniel, with a wild-eyed despair that left him nearly sick with fear.

They had promised him it would be best for Milo: a nice home, with a nice woman, who had the added credential of being his mother. Even though she’d done crap to show it over the last eight years. When Milo was six months old, she’d dumped him in the Preacher’s arms and taken off to find herself. No one had asked her to find her way back.

After Giuliana’s, Daniel went home, because that’s where Milo always went. There was no sign of him. At the day camp, Laura Tanner was of no help, and he had to restrain himself from shaking her when she offered some thinly veiled observations about children from broken homes. He checked the empty school and, doorstep by doorstep, the houses of Milo’s few friends. When that, too, came up empty, he tried Giuliana’s neighbors at random, most of whom failed to open the door, although he saw more than a few pairs of eyes peering out from behind lace curtains. Everyone on the block knew better than to speak to a Ghent.

Only Grace Tuck answered her door, sizing him up with those cold, narrow eyes.

“I’m here alone,” she said. “So if you’re a roving ax murderer, you should really pick someone who would be more of a challenge.”

He nearly told her she shouldn’t answer the door to strangers, then reminded himself she was someone else’s problem.

“I’m looking for my little brother,” he said. “Milo? He’s eight. Maybe you’ve seen him around?”

“I know Milo.” She softened. “You can’t find him?”

He shook his head, swallowing the fear. The Christmas before last, he and Milo had spent the night watching
The
Wizard
of
Oz.
The flying monkeys had given the poor kid nightmares for a month, but that didn’t stop him from demanding to see the movie again and again, until he knew all the lyrics and could do a fair impression of Dorothy shrieking for her Auntie Em when the twister was a-comin’. He’d always wanted to see a “twister.”

“I’m sure he’s fine,” Daniel said tightly.

“Yeah.”

“I just need to find him.”

“Yeah. You do.”

The roads were largely impassable by car, so he walked, calling his brother’s name, trying to ignore the heaps of wreckage, overturned cars, vacant lots where houses used to be, men scrabbling with their bare hands to pry up collapsed beams and crushed walls and extricate whoever lay beneath. He didn’t let his mind stray to the question of what he would do if Milo was gone.

In the scrabble of weeds behind the Ghent house lay an old shed that Daniel’s father had used as a workroom in better times. Its wood beams and floorboards had rotted at approximately the same rate his father had, until its walls sagged alarmingly, its door rusted shut, and a hive of wasps took up residence under its eaves. There was a loose floorboard in the back corner, which, for a couple of years, Daniel had used as a hiding spot for things he didn’t want his father to find – candy, books, a Victoria’s Secret catalog that seemed to qualify as porn. But the last time he’d pried up the bent wooden board, a clutter of spiders had spilled out of it, the largest the size of his thumb. As he’d knelt there, mesmerized by the swarm, they had reached him, and crawled over his sneakers, into his hands, up his pant legs, his back, his neck, everywhere, until he broke from his stupor and screamed and screamed and screamed. It was weeks before they stopped skittering over his dreams. Lesson learned: don’t go looking in dark places, because dark things live there. And hidden beneath the prospect of Milo’s death were the real spiders. The truth, buried deep enough that ignoring it was unconscious as breathing: Without Milo, things would be easier. There’d be nothing to hold him to his father, to Oleander, to his small and hateful life. He had known it even at age nine, when the baby had appeared on the doorstep like a fairy-tale changeling. He’d known it, without letting himself know it, every day since. Sometimes he woke up in the night, from a disguised wish of a dream that would have made Freud proud, feeling guilty and ashamed. He never let himself remember why.

Daniel looked for Milo until the sun set, and then stole a flashlight from the drugstore and continued his search.

 

They would tell no stories of that night. Stories of the storm itself, yes, the
Where
were
you
when

and
If
I’d been a little less lucky

Stories of the dark days that followed. But not that night. The day’s adrenaline surge cast the night into shadow. Energy ebbed away, and with it, the capacity to remember, to mark the moments, narrating for some future self,
This
matters.
This
is
how
it
happened.
They moved through the night in a fog. They searched the wreckage and collected their belongings and taped up windows and hugged their children, and in the morning, they remembered only that they had survived, and then, sometime later, shaky with relief, they had slept.

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