She was standing in a desert. She knew it was a desert because it had the stereotypical characteristics of a desert. Before her stretched an endless expanse of dry cracked and flaking earth melting into a cloudless sky. She looked down and saw she was wearing dusty leather pants and black boots. An unnatural weight hung from her hip. It was a gun in a silver studded holster.
A long, unending, single note was wailing above her. She didn't know where it came from, or what it meant. It wailed on and on and on, never ending, constant, grating against her eardrums. It seemed to get louder by the second. She put her hand to her ears and knelt down on her elbows and knees. Waves of heat pulsed from the ground washing over her face.
The desert melted and when the world solidified around her it congealed into her living room.She knew it was her living room because the walls were yellow like hers, the flat screen tv stood over the mantle just like hers, but most of all she recognized the torn leather chair sitting by a small lamp on a tv tray with hand painted fruit. That was her old chair, every crease and dimple in the leather fabric put there by her body. The lamp was a hold over from IKEA during her college days. She had found the tv tray at a junk sale and loved the hand painted fruit, even though it tilted a little to one side. The gun at her hip was gone, it had not come with her to her safe place.
She realized the wail had followed her into the living room. It's a phone, she thought with some relief. The phone is ringing. But a tiny voice nagged at her, it's not a phone, there's no phone like that in this house. Phone's like that, the ringing kind with the single ear and mouth piece connected to a bulky base by a coiled wire, no one has those phones anymore...not really, and certainly not her. Not in this house.
She saw a phone like that at the children's museum not too long ago. She was shocked to see it in a museum. It made her feel old, and a little sad. The phone was one of the more popular Interactive Stations. Kids were standing in line to poke their fingers in the holes of that rotating dial and spin it around to the desired numbers, delighting in watching it click back into place, clickclickclickclickclick, brrrrrring.
The sound continued. It's a phone she thought again, someone answer the phone!!
The lights came on and the living room brightened. Then she was lifting up out of the room. She expected to smash into the ceiling. She was rising into that ominously eerie noise. She became conscious of silk sheets wrapped around her legs, a pillow jammed painfully against her right ear. The sound was rising with her, filling her head with its baleful one note wail, never ending. I'm waking up, but she didn't want to wake up she just wanted that sound to get out of her head. But it's hard not to wake up when someone turns on the lights. Did her husband not see she had been sleeping, what in God's name-
"Sofa." He called out to her from the foot of the bed using his joke version of her name, Sophia, but he wasn't joking she could tell right away. And then her consciousness pushed aside her fumbling and inept subconscious and suddenly she identified that godawful noise. A tornado siren.
Opening her eyes she looked into the wet nose of their golden retriever, Cody. Sensing her awake he whined at her and his hot breath washed over her face. Desert heat, gross, she thought. She pushed his nose away from her and sat up. The room was bright but when lightening flashed the room miraculously got brighter. The storm was intense. She couldn't remember a storm sounding this heavy, this strong. "Wow, some storm huh?"
"Yeah," her husband, Scott, held the remote control out toward the tv sitting on a black stand at the foot of their bed, shaking the remote each time he hit the power button. "I was watching tv in the living room."
"Beam us up Scotty?" She asked, smiling at him, their nerdy joke much like "Sofa" for Sophia.
"Haha, no, not Star Trek." He shook the remote, "when I heard the sirens, I came in here to turn on the news and couldn't get this tv to work. Now they're both out." The flat black screen stared at them impassively. She could see their warped reflections in the glossy plastic cover. When lightening flashed outside the reflections vanished in the wash of brighter light. The TV was on, the little eye at the bottom was green, but there was no image.
Thunder followed each flash and after the thunder came Cody's whimpers. The poor guy hated storms. His nose was back, nudging at her hand, seeking her comfort. Lightening, Thunder, Whimper. Lightening, Thunder, Whimper. Don't forget the rain, it was a pounding backdrop to all the noise. And the siren, must not forget the siren. It wailed on for what had to be a longer time than she could ever remember hearing a tornado siren. Sophia didn't mind storms, she liked them. But this was not like most storms. This was A Major Storm.
She remembered one time in first grade when her elementary school filed all the children into the hallway during a "major storm." That had been what the teachers called it, A Major Storm. At the time she hadn't known much about Major Storms, only that when there was one you had to line up like dominoes, keep your mouth shut, and put your head between your knees. That day in first grade the tornado siren had gone off and the teachers announced A Major Storm was coming. They were instructed to crouch down with their heads facing the cinder block wall and their behinds sticking out toward the middle of the hallway. It didn't take long for the hallway to heat up with fifty or so nervous little bodies crammed into that long narrow space. She had looked up just once toward the big black double doors leading to the playground. She could see through the two long and rectangular plastic windows set in the doors. The sight was like something from a Southern Baptist version of the end of days. Revelation. From her crouched position she saw a sky darker than night, but brighter than day when lightening flashed, and she saw wind so strong it snapped tree limbs and lifted leaves and pine cones and even dirt and flung it at those plastic windows. It was as if Nature itself was trying to get through the doors and gobble up the tender insides of Libby Elementary, and now sitting in her bed almost twenty years later, she was just as scared as she was back then looking out of those rectangles with her classmates whimpering and nervously giggling around her.
Sophia thought about that day in first grade. Nature is out there and there are gooey insides in this house and how easy would it be for the roof to just go pop!
"It's the cable," her husband finally said, tossing the remote onto the bed. He knelt behind the flat screen and started rummaging around in the mess of wires back there. She would never understand all the wires behind TVs. The spaces behind TVs were cobwebby confusing places that were best left up to husbands. In the three years they had been married she had quickly realized that many things in life were best left to husbands. Taking out the trash was one of them, and mowing the yard.
"The storm knocked out our cable." The rabbit ears behind the tv jiggled and the boob tube, as her father called it, was suddenly alive. "It's a wonder we still have power," he told her coming around to the front of the tv to check the image. But the image was clear, no need to break out the tin foil. The image was clear if not a little scary.
"Don't jinx us Scott," She said, trying to inject a little humor in what was becoming a tense moment. The broadcaster on the local channel was sitting at his desk, prim and authoritative. He was explaining to his tv audience that he was about to show them the radar. How very informative of him, he was full of information and advice, this weatherman who Sophia recognized as Jim Taber the Wild Weather Man of Green Country from Channel 2 News. Jim smiled at his tv audience, and Sophia noticed for the first time that Jim had very white teeth. Then the map with the radar filled the entire screen and the image of Jim was gone, but they still had his voice, very flat and accent-less and purposefully void of emotion. Jim the Wild Weather Man was very professional.
The map was zoomed out and Sophia could see that the Northeastern part of the State was a wash of green, yellow, and red. Jim the Wild Weather Man announced that he would be zooming into the area in the most trouble, and he unnervingly zoomed into her county, then her part of the county, and then her part of the city, and the entire area was painted red, the whole area around their house was red. And red was bad.
Scott got into the bed next to her and, refusing to be left out, Cody lifted his giant frame onto the bed too. He gave a tentative whimper and looked at them imploringly, neither Scott nor Sophia told him to get down. Sophia pulled his big head into her lap and watched the newscast with a lump of fear hardening and growing in her belly.
Jim was telling people in the red to start taking their tornado precautions. "Get your kids and pets and get into an interior room in your house, go ahead and do get ready now guys. There's rotation confirmed between 121st and Aspen, and another area of rotation confirmed just south of that heading north east toward Coweta. If this turns into an all out tornado then it will most likely be travelling up and across 121st. You've got strong winds down there folks, with gusts about 95 miles per hour and getting stronger. Again, get your kids and get into an interior room in your house."
An area of rotation, identified by a flashing circle, appeared just north of the intersection where they lived. The Reasor's where she bought milk and bread and eggs, all those things mom said was essential to a kitchen, was two miles away, at the intersection of 121st and Aspen.
"Should we get Amelia?" Sophia asked her husband. He grimaced, thunder boomed and Cody whined and the tornado siren continued to wail. His six year old daughter had slept through it all so far. Sophia had not heard a single peep coming from that side of the house. She knew what he was thinking; Amelia was getting into that dramatic stage of most pre-teen girls. Even though she was only six Amelia could dramatize the slightest thing with all the flare and overture of a full-fledged 16 year old hormonal teenage girl. If they got her up now and told her they had to sit in the closet she would never go back to sleep and it was a school night.
"Let's wait," he said, and she was silently glad. They were both from Oklahoma, and it was nothing in Oklahoma for a storm to just peter out. They had grown up listening to warnings and watches and preparedness statements. More often than not newscasters would harken "bathroom" just to be on the safe side. In fifteen minutes this tempest could dwindle to a moonless night. The chances of nothing happening were great, and if they woke her now the rest of the night would be a different kind of torture. The torture of a dramatic six year old milking this stormy episode for all the hugs and kisses and re-tuck-ins and bedtime snacks, and tummy aches, and potty breaks possible.
Still, Sophia was worried, what else were they waiting for? What would be the final alarm that would send them with conviction to the closet if not the tornado itself? When it was time to go would she know it? Surely something in the pit of her stomach would tell her. She knew her husband was thinking the same thing. Surely instincts would kick in and they would know. But would it be too late then? That she didn't know. She flung her feet over the side of the bed and for the first time realized she had to pee badly.
"I'm going to the bathroom," she told her husband, "and then I'm putting my shoes on." He nodded. Cody heaved himself from the covers and lumbered off the bed. It pained him to see his two masters separating. Which one should he stay with? He looked from Sophia to Scott and whined, visibly distressed. She made the decision easy for him and shut the bathroom door behind her. For a brief minute, before she flicked on the bathroom lights, it was as if a strobe light was outside their bathroom window. The light was so intense it blinded her and whether the room was dark or dizzily bright with lightening she couldn't see and it made her a nauseous. She turned on the light and went to the toilet.
While she was doing her business Cody whined outside the door. She could hear him huffing, expressing his displeasure at the shut door. She flushed the toilet and pulled her sweatpants up, tightening the string around her hips keeping the soft fabric from pooling back down around her ankles. She went to the sink and started washing her hands. Her reflection in the mirror stared at her. She looked tired, and a little frazzled. Her hair was piled on top of her head in a loose bun held in place with a cotton scrunchie. Chunks of long strands had escaped during her short sleep and they hung crazily around her face. Her eyes had bags and her skin was pale. Her pupils were dilated, from the anxiety building within her. She was wearing an oversized black sweater with the words "dangerously overeducated" printed across the chest in an obnoxious yellow. Her husband teased her about that sweater, but it was her favorite. And after all, with both of them having a doctorate degree and a license to practice law weren't they both in fact "dangerously overeducated?" She pulled her sweater down and chuckled at the slogan emblazoned across the front.
When she emerged from the bathroom her husband had put on a pair of Adidas sweatpants and was lacing his tennis shoes, an old pair of Reeboks that had seen many a grass clipping. They were stained green, the leather permanently marked by all the summers filled with yard work. "Shoes seemed like a good idea," he said when he caught her looking at him.
"And pants too, I see."
He laughed but it was a nervous one. "While you were in the bathroom they said there were break ins reported."
"What? Like burglars?"
"Yeah, real honest to God first degree burgs. People have been calling 911. They're saying to check your doors and windows...and to call the police if you see anything suspicious."
"Why would people do that during this," she gestured toward the window where outside the storm raged and howled.
"Maybe easy pickings...I don't know. Who knows, maybe it's nothing, maybe it's all happening in a bad area. There are those apartments near here that are pretty slummy." But he didn't look like it was nothing.
She went to the closet and pulled out her own shoes, a pair of green chucks that Amelia called "chunks." Last year she had worn them when she helped a friend paint the outside of her lake house, tan paint still dotted the green canvas. She sat next to him on the bed and undid the laces.
Jim the Wild Weather Man was still talking, they still couldn't see him but they could hear him. It was a Major Storm alright. A guy named Dan was also speaking, Jim introduced him as a storm chaser. "Dan," the weatherman said, "please tell us where you are for our viewers just tuning in."
Dan complied, "Sure Jim, I'm in south Glendale near the Glendale and Coweta city limits, just south of 121st and Aspen on Old Oneta Road."
"That's close," Sophia said, double knotting her laces, something she hadn't done since running track in high school, when tripping over your laces mattered. She was thinking about that old gas station on Oneta Road, the one that sold burned coffee and stale donuts.
Jim asked Dan what he was seeing and Dan was again very compliant. "I'm seeing lots of wind, lots of heavy rain. The wind is picking up now; I've got readings of 95 mph. I'm in the thick of this storm Jim; it's lightening all around me. People living near here should take their tornado precautions now. I think I'm getting rotation." There was some static after that last part.
"Dan," Jim called
out, "Dan what was that? You have rotation?"
"Yes," Dan came back on, his voice faint over the sudden crackles of bad reception, "debris is blowing around me Jim, wind speed 100 mph and increasing, my truck is rocking...wait, I think someone is out there....crackle crackle....someone...."
"Say again Dan?"
"Dan did you say you saw someone?"
"Jim, there's someone out there, looks like....crackle....near my truck."
The screen was still showing the radar so they couldn't see Jim nervously twisting his fingers. This had turned into a weird night. Sophia heard Jim speaking to his audience; Dan was just a jumble of crackles now. Jim was trying to make sense of Dan's last bit. "Obviously viewers at home please don't go outside if you are in this area. Dan is a trained professional and he has equipment in his vehicle that will assist him if he in fact is in a tornadic area. If anyone is out there I'm sure Dan will do his best to ensure they are safe. I'd like to also remind our viewers that even though we've had reports of break-ins in the area of the storm, those events appear to be isolated we've gotten no further reports and the police have responded. Again, Dan is a professional and he has chased many storms in his career-"
"Oh my god!" The outburst from Dan was so riddled with fear, so laden with raw terror that even Jim, the incessantly speaking confident wild weather man Jim, was rocked into silence. Sophia reached out and found her husband's hand. "They're more of them....what...coming! Oh my god they're coming!" That last part was belted onto the airways with a gasp and another strangled scream and then the connection died.
"Dan?" Jim ventured, Sophia almost didn't want crazy Dan to come back. It was too frightening, too senseless. "Dan?" Jim tried one more time, the old college try she thought. "Well guys, I'm sure Dan is fine. I'm sure the weather just scrambled our communication." Jim did not sound like he believed that. Jim sounded flat out, in your face, no faking it till you make it scared. He cleared his throat lustily. "Please take your tornado precautions, I urge you." The radar lifted and Sophia could see Jim again for the first time since her husband switched on the TV. He was ashen, his tie hung down and the buttons on his shirt were undone. His eyes were wild and the paper in front of him was crumpled into shreds and wadded up balls. Jim Taber the Wild Weather Man of Green Country looked terrified.
The lights went out. Jim's ashen petrified face vanished. She was almost glad to see him go, even if it meant no more news. The tornado siren stopped, leaving a silent vacuum that made her ears pop despite the pounding rain and the near constant rumble of thunder. They sat there in the dark, listening to the tempest outside and Cody began to whine. Sophia sat on the edge of the bed with her left hand in her husband's right. She was afraid to turn around to face the two windows behind them. But that thing she knew would be in her stomach when it was survival time was screaming. It was instincts and they screaming so loud she didn't think her muscles would obey her, too many messages were being sent to her brain at once. Grab the dog, get the kid, get a weapon, get in the closet, get the truck keys!"
Her head slowly turned, as if it was on a stick, the rest of her body immobile. Cody paced in front of them, his tail down between his legs and he started growling and whining. Her head continued to turn and her instincts were still screaming at her. Scott locked eyes with her and together they looked toward the window. Her husband must have pulled up the shades before she woke. It was dark outside but there was so much lightening she could see the backyard easily.
They lived on the edge of the city limits. Beyond their fence was unincorporated county, and nothing else was out there except cows, a single barn used by the local 4-H club, pasture land, clumps of trees scattered throughout, and a single black top stretching east toward the smaller city of Coweta. The black top was Oneta Road. Through the window she was looking east, toward Coweta and it looked like the storm was raging there too. The Coweta water tower looked like an eerie hulking skeleton.
The little willow tree she planted as soon as the last frost had passed was bent over, half of it ripped from the still soft soil. It whipped up and down, limbs and leaves flailing like a woman getting the worst domestic beating of her life. Other debris was blowing across the yard, shingles ripped from rooftops, trash, and smaller limbs. A large piece of plastic heaved itself over their fence and danced and twirled into their yard. She realized it was the tarp from the neighborhood swimming pool, it had been ripped from the pool and swept into their yard.
She took all this in with an ever growing sense of foreboding. Something was coming, and then she saw it. A single gray and black finger came down from the sky over Coweta. She couldn't tell how close it was, but she was looking at it and that was close enough for her, a single slender tornado sluicing through the rain.
Just then a brilliant flash of lightening streaked across the sky and she feared it would strike her little willow bent and dying. The light was so blinding that fuzzy spots clouded her eyesight, but not before she saw the clear outline of a four fingered hand and bony wrist pressed against the window pane. Rivulets of water streamed around the grayish skin pressed against the glass. She blinked the spots away and the hand was gone.
"Get Amelia," her husband said, his voice husky with fear. "It's time."