Authors: Robin Wasserman
Two people died in the hospital that night; three more died under the wreckage of their houses before help could reach them. Oleander had an all-volunteer fire squad, a five-man police department, and a handful of utilities employees charged with righting the water, gas, and power. But that night, anyone with an able body ventured into the darkness, flashlights and supplies in hand. Gas and water mains were mended; blankets and coffee were distributed to the shattered and wounded; cots were provided to the newly homeless. Plumbers joined electricians and handymen to jury-rig the town’s infrastructure while friends and neighbors dug through piles of rubble, searching for keepsakes and loved ones. Even among the sturdiest of old-fashioned farming stoics, there were more embraces than handshakes, and more tears than either.
The hospital overflowed with bleeders, people pressing shirts and tissues and rags to dirty wounds. While the nurses tended to the critical cases, the rest tended to each other, fetching washcloths and rubbing shoulders and doing the kind of banding together and communal rallying that played well on the evening news. In the homes without emergency generators, candles were lit. Families played cards and told scary stories of scarier days. Some stayed in the storm cellar all night, waiting.
Many looked to the sky. The night had cooled, and a soft breeze rustled what few leaves remained on branches. The storms were gone, the skies clear from Wichita to Topeka. But they weren’t clear over Oleander, where a thick layer of clouds blotted out the sky. A strange trick of the moonlight had stained them red. And when people remembered anything about that night, it was this: there were no stars.
What Daniel saw was so close to what he wanted to see that for a moment, he didn’t trust it: a small, lithe figure creeping out of the shed and shutting the door firmly behind him, darting a look over his shoulder to make sure no one was watching. It was too dark to see the boy’s face, but he could easily make out the baseball cap perched cockeyed on a mess of curly hair. Daniel’s legs, which had nearly given out after hours of walking the town, felt new again, capable of leaping small buildings in a single bound, more than capable of sprinting across the yard in seconds, and then he was close enough to reach out and grab Milo, who was no desperate hallucination, who was solid, and whole, and alive.
you,” Daniel promised, his face buried in his brother’s shoulder. He squeezed Milo tight enough to pop him. “You run off like that again, you’re dead, get it?”
Milo wiggled out of his grip and looked up at his brother. Daniel aimed the flashlight at his face.
“Hey, watch it!” He jerked away from the beam, but Daniel didn’t let up.
“You listening to me? No more wandering away from grown-ups, no more running home. You…” Daniel swallowed hard. “You have to listen to your mom. She’s in charge.”
“She hates you,” Milo said, sullen now.
“But she loves you.” Maybe it was even true. “Promise,” Daniel said.
“I promise I’ll listen to her.”
“And do what she says.”
“And do what she says.”
“What are you doing here, anyway?” Daniel said.
“I just needed to… get something.”
“In the middle of a
“I waited till it was over,” Milo said, in a tone that indicated he didn’t appreciate Daniel calling him an idiot. He paused. “Dad’s not here.”
“No, he’s not.”
“You think he’s out saving people?”
Daniel rolled his eyes in the dark. This was a kid who’d seen through the Santa sham from day one, but somehow he still believed their father was a superhero, out to save the souls of the world. “Sure, Milo. That’s what he does, right?”
Milo grinned. It faded quickly. “You’re gonna take me back there, aren’t you. To her house.”
house,” Daniel said. He flicked off the flashlight, preferring not to see his brother’s face. “Yeah. I am.”
“But we don’t have to go now, right? Can we eat first, or something? I’m hungry.”
The dark gave him no protection against Milo’s high, eager voice.
“And tired,” Milo added quickly. The kid knew what he was doing.
“It’s pretty late. Your mom’s probably already asleep,” he said, knowing better. “No reason to wake her up. But first thing in the morning, you’re going right back. Got it?”
“Got it.” Milo took his hand, and together they crossed the dark. “Danny?” Milo sounded younger than usual.
They dined on cold pizza and warm pop, and then Daniel tucked his brother in and stayed by his side until he fell asleep. It didn’t occur to him – not that night or the next, not until it was too late – to wonder what Milo was hiding in the shed.
After the bodies were zipped into body bags and returned to their graves.
After the newly dead were buried beside the old.
After the windows were taped up and the caution tape taken down.
After the sun came up and the tanks rolled in.
After the men in uniforms blockaded the road.
After the food ran out.
After one day passed, and then two and then three, and the power came back but the phones, the Internet, the outside world never did.
After that, things were different.
But maybe not different enough.
There were three main routes out of Oleander: State Street to Route 8 ran along the southern edge of the town, skirting Potawamie Lake to the east and tracing the woods in the west before winding into the prairie. Route 72 cut through the farmland in the east and crossed a set of disused railroad tracks on its way to the horizon. The Nanimwe River bordered the town on the north, but crossing Asylum Bridge would take you only to the old power plant or an endless field of corn – in other words, nowhere you’d ever want to go.
All three were blocked by a cluster of tanks and soldiers, each carrying some this-means-business weaponry. The soldiers wore surgical masks. Barbed-wire fences had been erected along the highway lines, while floodlights swept over the lake. Word soon spread of the ATVs that cut back and forth across the farmland by Route 72, hunting for anyone who’d made an ill-advised trek into the wild.
It took a couple of days, and more than a handful of border skirmishes, for anyone to find the time and energy to care. Those first forty-eight hours were about digging out and rebuilding, patching wounds and wiping tears. The lack of access to the outside world via phone, computer, or car was expected. The crimson smoke that still billowed overhead, blocking the stars and staining the sun? That was not.
Nor was the absence of media vultures, eager volunteers, photographers, FEMA paper pushers, politicians, the complete cast of characters who could be counted on to descend after any communal tragedy. The town had waited: for the Good Samaritans who would drive cross-country with bags of ice and racks of barbecue, for the charity groups who would apply their overpriced tool kits and rudimentary carpentry skills to the rubble, for the medical volunteers who would supplement the overrun hospital, for the politicians who would pose with the sad and brokenhearted, for the camera crews who would capture it all on film for
But the federal disaster workers were the first and last to arrive. And whatever work they were doing beyond the borders, these strange nonsoldiers with their soldier-like bearing, it didn’t include restoring television and phone reception, constructing temporary housing, or bolstering the mental health of the town, the last of which was decaying by the day.
The police department had a staff of five, including two patrolmen who served part-time and devoted most of their energies to buying and selling antique guns online. Oleander considered itself a
town, full of
people, and there wasn’t, in those first two days, much looting or vandalism. But there was more than the police were equipped to stop. Especially since one officer was tasked to spend most of his days driving through town, piping announcements through his rooftop megaphone that were intended to calm the populace.
panic. The water is safe to drink. The air is safe to breathe. The soldiers are here for your safety. Do not panic. Do not panic.
It was a phrase that tended to have the opposite effect.
Those who had an in-case-of-emergency bottled-water supply drank only from that. Those who trusted neither the police nor the air donned masks or wrapped T-shirts around their faces when they went outside. Those who depended on constant access to the Internet went a little nuts.
And everyone had a theory:
The tornado had caused a nuclear-reactor leak (though there was no nuclear reactor within a hundred miles of Oleander – “as far as we
The country was under attack.
The government wanted to erase Oleander from the map, just because it could.
They were all unwitting subjects of a psychology experiment.
Possibly an experiment run by aliens.
On Saturday afternoon, two days after the storm, the megaphone message changed, announcing a town meeting. Every household was requested to send at least one representative. There would be free coffee.
There would be answers.
They crammed into the school gymnasium, downed their weak coffee, and waited to be convinced that their world wasn’t broken beyond repair. No one was in much of a hurry to sit down, not before they’d exhausted all possibilities for hugging and weeping and retelling the story of how they’d made it through. It would hurt less once it became a story, something to be remembered and rehashed in a neat linear form. Some tottered on crutches; others brought pillows on which to rest plaster-encased limbs. Almost everyone bore bandages, stitches, burns, or scratches, some badge of honor from the storm. Even Ellie, though the shallow slash on her face had nearly healed.
She and her parents – temporarily reunited by crisis – squeezed into the fourth row. To their left sat Chip Gordon, the high school chemistry teacher known to bump up his salary by making and selling illegal fireworks out of the chem lab all summer. On their right was Rosemary Wooden, older sister of the departed Eugenia, who had always been (in her own estimation) the smarter and (in everyone’s estimation) meaner sibling. Her disposition had not improved with the slaughter of her sister in a drugstore massacre.
Ellie had come to the meeting only because her mother requested it, and when it came to her mother, saying yes was easier. She would have preferred to stay at home, in her room, staring. It was how she’d spent the last two days, staring at the ceiling, trying and failing to regain her purchase on the world. Since the storm, she’d felt like she was living underwater, everything blurry and muffled and slow. Everything except the voice in her head.
Unlike the rest of the world, the voice felt real.
And it knew her sins.
The mayor took the stage. Ellie wondered if everyone else could see that he was trembling, or if it was just her. She’d started to think a lot of things were just her.
He welcomed the town, offered his sympathies for their struggles, promised them that Oleander would band together in this time of trouble. He recited these sentiments in a monotone, reading verbatim from his notes, never once raising his eyes to meet the crowd. He called a line of football players onto the stage, introducing them as the Watchdogs, an impromptu neighborhood watch that would ensure the continuing security and tranquility of the town. Special commendation went to Baz Demming, police lieutenant’s son and star quarterback, whose brainstorm this had been.
The sight of Baz penetrated Ellie’s haze. She could feel his eyes searching the crowd – surely not for her. It had been years since she’d had to worry about that. But they could easily fall on her accidentally, and if they did, she felt as if her skin might literally burn.
she told herself.
The voice knew better.
A screen was unfurled. It lit up, revealing a middle-aged middleman, graying and paunchy and dressed in civilian clothes. He introduced himself as Colonel Matthew Franklin. He didn’t bother to explain how he’d managed to appear before them with all phone and Internet lines down; when it came to its own needs, the government always had its ways.
“I apologize that I couldn’t join you in person,” he said, smiling avuncularly into the camera, “but rest assured that a joint task force of National Guard and FEMA personnel is doing everything in its power to restore… Oleander to the life it once knew.” There was a noticeable pause before he spoke the name of the town, as if he’d needed a whispered reminder from someone off camera. “I’m sure you have many questions about the quarantine” that’s been erected at the town borders —”
It was the first time anyone official had used the term
Murmurs rippled through the crowd.
“— but I assure you that all measures taken have been for your own safety. We’ve had a bit of an… incident at a facility several miles from your borders, but I assure you
I repeat, as long as you remain
you will be
As soon as the situation has been contained, we’ll restore full freedom of movement. In the meantime, our top priority is
On that you have my word, and the word of the United States government.”
The screen went black. The murmurs rose to a dull roar.
“If it’s so safe, why ain’t he settin’ foot in it?” someone shouted from the back. Someone else cursed the tornado, and several more cursed the government. The surging anger was palpable, and bubbling beneath it was a dangerous current of fear.
“People, people, stay calm,” Mayor Mouse pleaded with the crowd. “You heard the man. Something spilled out there, or exploded, or what have you – nothing those men can’t handle.” He was off his written notes, and out of his depth. “Let them worry about fixing whatever mess they made out there, and what say we worry about fixing our town?”
“How ’bout you fix the damn phone lines!”
“And how much longer am I supposed to go without my TV?”
“My kids are out there – they don’t even know if I’m dead or alive!”
“They’re liars,” said a deep voice on the far right of the room. Scott Prevette rose to his feet, fist in the air. “You don’t clue into that soon, they’ll see us all dead.”
The audience fell silent, hesitant to give its fury full release if it meant siding with a Prevette. But Scott saved them the trouble, striding out of the room, the rest of the family falling in behind him, single file. Jule wasn’t with them, Ellie noticed. She hoped the girl had made it safely through the storm.
The mayor was losing his audience. That might have been the end of it, right there, the death of law and order and the trappings of civility that keep the many subordinated to the will of the few, had the deacon not seized the moment – and the stage. Ellie sat up straighter. She hadn’t spoken to him since the night of the storm. In his presence, there’d been a peace, a sureness, that she had not found since. The town felt it, too; she could tell by the way they shifted in their chairs, stilling their restless mutterings, waiting for him to speak.
“The wages of sin is death,” he boomed, joining the mayor at the microphone. “But the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Then, astoundingly – especially for a man who believed humor to be the devil’s favorite trick – he laughed. “I don’t know about you, but I’m not quite ready to meet my Maker.”
More astoundingly, the audience laughed with him.
“The government has forsaken us. Nature has forsaken us. I’ll admit, I’ve asked myself: Has the Lord forsaken us?” He hesitated, giving the question time to settle over the crowd. Or maybe giving himself time to worry the answer. That wasn’t like him. “I’ll admit, I was angry at Him. I’ll admit, I doubted.” From him, it was the ultimate admission of weakness. That wasn’t like him, either. “But then I thought: What if the storm wasn’t a punishment? What if it was a warning? What if this quarantine is a gift? The wolves are at the door, friends. We know this. But maybe the Lord just installed a dead bolt. Oleander belongs to us now. Imagine it: no meddling outsiders, no East Coast politicians telling us how to teach our children, how to love our wives, how to live. Imagine if we could remake this town into what the Lord knows it can be, a shining city on the hill.”
There were a few scattered
s from the crowd, and more than a few hushed dismissals.
“Never forget, our Lord is a just Lord. And He listens to His people. When God called Abraham in the desert, and warned him that Sodom and Gomorrah would be destroyed, did Abraham let this pass? Did he turn his back on the cities of sin and wish them farewell?”
s were cautious at first, then – maybe because it was a good day for shouting – less so.
“He did not!” the deacon boomed. “He pleaded with the Lord:
Please, my God, spare these cities for the sake of the righteous yet dwelling within.
Why do I remind you of this story? Because Sodom and Gomorrah were beyond redemption – but we are not. Because it takes a brave soul to argue with the Lord, and a truly fierce soul to argue and win. You here, Ellie King? How about you come on up here for a moment?”
Ellie started in her seat, unable to believe she’d actually heard her name. But heads were swiveling toward her, and her mother was poking her, urging her to rise. She climbed the stairs to the stage and took her place beside the deacon. With the weight of his hand on her shoulder, she felt steadier than she’d been in days, rooted to the earth and to the world.
“Three nights ago,” the deacon began, “while all of us were hiding fearfully beneath the earth, awaiting the Lord’s judgment, this young, defenseless girl strode into the storm. She entered the house of the Lord, and there she prayed. Not just for the preservation of her own life. Not for the humble building in which she sat. She prayed for the soul of Oleander.
sinners. Have mercy, Jesus, and allow me to lead my people to salvation.