"When exactly are you leaving?"
I turned to look at her. She was beautiful against the scarlet sky, her blonde hair gently billowing in the breeze, her round blue eyes scanning the setting sun. Sunsets were beautiful in Kansas--but Annabelle was even prettier. I smiled when her gaze turned on me; she chuckled and blew a cloud of smoke into my face.
"Are you going to answer me?" She said as she passed me the cigarette. I took it and inhaled the tobacco deeply. It was all I could do not to cough it up; I hated smoking, and so did Annabelle. But smoking was just something kids did.
"I don't know," I said. "My dad didn't even know where we were moving 'til about a week ago. But I reckon we'll be leaving sometime towards the end of the month."
She sighed and rested her head on my shoulder. We looked back out at the sunset, across the Wilkinson's farm, where not a single tree dotted the horizon between the ground and the sky. I didn't know which made me happier--Annabelle's head on my shoulder or the beauty in front of me. They were both those types of things that you could experience every day and still never get used to. "I wish you didn't have to leave at all," Annabelle said.
"I know. Me too." The only thing that sucked worse than moving from a place after only living there a year was probably leaving behind your first girlfriend. "But... I mean, we can always video-call each other."
Annabelle sighed and took her head off my shoulder. She hopped off the freestanding brick wall we were sitting on, and turned around, staring at me with those wide blue eyes. She grabbed my hands with hers, forcing me to drop the cigarette. "Tyler. You're 16 years old, you're cute, funny, smart... you'll have no problems finding girls wherever you go. I don't want you to be held down by me."
I shook my hands free. I slid off the brick wall and turned my back to her. "So that's it then," I said. "It's over."
She tried to reach for my shoulder but I shrugged her off and walked away, down the edge of the farm back towards town. But she ran ahead of me and cut me off. Her eyes were watery now. "Don't be that way," she said. "That's just immature."
She's right. Dad had told me to start acting the man of the house. Men didn't treat women that way. "I know," I began, "I know. I'm just upset, is all. The whole thing sucks." We started walking again, her on my right side. The bright sunset left only her silhouette when I looked at her. Her figure was nearly flawless. "It's my dad," I began.
"Don't blame it on your dad, either," she said. She sounded annoyed with me.
"Well, it's his fault."
"It's his fault that he's in the Army?"
"Kind of. He could have retired this year." I kind of lied there--my dad wouldn't be able to retire again for another five years. But Annabelle didn't have to know that.
"Well," she said, "he's your dad nonetheless. And you have to support him."
We walked in silence for a few minutes after that; the sun was mostly set now and the darkness gave a new perspective to the Wilkinson's farm. The tall grass of the unkempt fields gently billowed with the night wind. A half moon peeked through a wispy cloud, clouds which seemed to get larger and wider by the passing minute. It almost seemed like a storm was approaching. "Where are you guys moving, anyway?" Annabelle said in an attempt to break the silence.
I didn't like that question one bit. When my dad told me where we were going just that previous week, I nearly ran out the front door. Fort Stewart, Georgia, he said. That wasn't just any fort--that was the main base of operations for the 3rd infantry division, nearly all of which was deployed in Iraq. In other words, Fort Stewart was where dads went to die. "I don't know exactly," I said to Annabelle. "All I know is that it's somewhere in Georgia."
"Georgia? Wow." She fell silent again. I could see the streetlights of Lansing looming ahead, illuminating the darkness left by the setting sun. Behind us, the Wilkinson's farm was pitch black. The moonlight was gone now, blocked by the heavy clouds that were carried in from the West. The slight breeze from earlier had transformed into a strong headwind. It barely got cold during Kansas summers, but the wind sent a shiver down my spine. I saw that Annabelle was cold, too, so I put my arm around her shoulder and we walked closely all the way back to town.
"Annabelle," I said suddenly as we approached the first streetlight, "You're right. This isn't going to work out."
"No, but we still have a month," she said.
"I don't know." I kicked at a tangle of weeds sticking out of the unkempt grass; it caught on my foot and I nearly tripped. She couldn't help but laugh as I twisted my whole body around to avoid the fall. Seeing her laugh made me smile. I hated her for that--I was in no mood to smile. "Hey!" I snapped. She stopped laughing. I regained my steps and caught up with her.
"Tyler, what's wrong with you?" She said. She sounded worried this time.
"Nothing, just... I think I want to break up with you. Now." I cringed, waiting for the reaction. She only laughed again.
"You said that a few minutes ago, silly. I know you don't mean it."
I shook my head angrily. "Well, I mean it this time."
She stopped walking. "Why? We still have a whole month and--"
"A month doesn't mean anything," I interrupted. "It's better to get over the pain now then when I have to deal with everything else during the move. You understand that. And I'm not even sure if it's a month. We could leave tomorrow for all I know."
"But I just--I just don't understand." Under the artificial light of the streetlamp, I could see that tears were swelling in her eyes. And, in some sick way, I took pleasure in that. A girl is crying over me, I thought. Hardly anyone had ever cried over me before.
"Annabelle, stop it," I said. I reached my arm out to comfort her, but she backed up. She glared at me.
"I hope I never see you again," she said before turning around and running back the way we came.
"Anna--stop!" I called after her, but it was no use. I knew there would be no point in running after her. She would most likely run down back towards the opposite end of the Wilkinson's farm and walk home from there. I stood there for a good bit, staring off into the dark abyss of the farm. The lights from the streetlamps hardly illuminated further than three feet of the fields, yet I knew Annabelle would find her way safely. Disheartened, I turned back around and continued the walk home by myself. It's better this way, I kept convincing myself as I walked. This way it's less painful for the both of us.
Raindrops began to fall as I neared my street. I picked up the pace, but it wasn't long before the thunder and the lightning followed. In a matter of seconds, the tranquility of my neighborhood was shattered by everything short of a monsoon. I started to run, although part of me wanted to turn back and make sure Annabelle was okay. She's fine, I reasoned. Besides, she doesn't want to see me again anyway. When I finally got to my house, I ran to the garage, punched the code in, and ducked under the slowly lifting door before it was even three feet off the ground. I found my dad waiting on the inside.
"Thank God," he said. He had one shoe on--it seemed like he was about to go looking for me. "What the hell were you doing outside, son? Didn't I tell you there was a storm coming?"
"There wasn't a cloud in the sky when I left," I said. I walked to the house door and took off my soaking shoes. That was one thing about Kansas that I wouldn't miss--the sporadic weather. I walked inside and found my mother and sister sitting on the couch in the living room. My mom looked like she was in tears.
"You had me scared shitless," she said to me when I crossed over into the living room.
"What is the big deal?" I said as I plopped down on the couch next to my sister.
"The big deal," my dad said as he closed the garage door and walked in to the living room, "is that there's an F5 tornado warning for our neighborhood."
"Are you kidding me?" I said. My mom shook her head. She walked across the room to the closet under the stairs, a place where we normally took shelter during heavy storms. She opened the door and revealed a lamp, radio, and several blankets already set up in the back.
"I set it up this time," my sister said proudly as she hopped off the couch and walked over into the makeshift shelter. She sat down in the back and curled up with one of the blankets.
"We were waiting on you to get home before we took shelter," my dad said. "Now, if you want to jeopardize your own safety, that's one thing. But if people are counting on you--"
"Oh, Jack, just stop it," my mother interrupted.
My dad looked angry. "No, Sarah, he has to understand responsibility. When I'm gone next year, he can't--"
"SHUT UP!" I yelled. The moment it came out of my mouth, though, I regretted it. My dad reached out a hand and smacked me across the jaw. Normally when my parents punished me I pretended to fall to the ground in exaggeration; this time, I only stood there and continued glaring at him.
"Don't you dare talk to me that way," my dad said in a calm, almost maniacal tone. "Get in there right now and don't say another word--"
"I can't!" I said, although this time there was a good reason.
"I mean, I really can't!"
My dad looked like he was about to explode. "You better give me one good reason why I shouldn't carry your skinny ass in there right now."
"It's Annabelle, dad! I left her at the Wilkinson's farm--I don't know if she got back safely."
My dad was quiet for a little bit. I could tell that he was both concerned and furious, although he didn't quite know which emotion to display first. Finally, he spoke: "Get in the car." He didn't have to tell me twice. I ran out into the garage and threw myself into the passenger seat of the family Civic. It seemed to take forever until he finally entered the garage wearing a poncho and holding a heavy-duty flashlight. "Sarah, you and Catherine stay in that shelter and don't leave under any circumstances," he said as he flung open the driver's seat of the car and opened the garage door.
It was a downpour outside. The wind almost seemed strong enough to blow the car back into the garage, although my dad managed to back out of the driveway and head down the road towards the Wilkinson's. In the distance I could hear the wailing of Lansing's tornado siren, although the crashing sounds of thunder and pouring rain almost drowned it out. It seemed like the drive took longer than the walk (which it probably did, considering how the road was practically a river at that point), and the awkward silence in the car was almost unbearable. I finally decided to speak.
"Dad, I'm sorry--"
"Do you know anything about girls, son?" He said in a brisk tone.
"I reckon you don't, if you think it's a good idea to leave 'em out in the middle of a thunderstorm."
I sat there for a while, trying to think of how to respond. I couldn't, really. My dad was right. I didn't know anything about girls. I lay my head against the rain-spattered window and stared outside. The streetlamps were like tiny oases in a desert of darkness, showing the path of my dad's slow-moving car. I had never felt lonelier in my entire life. I wanted to cry, then, but I figured my dad still had room to think even less of me. "I'm sorry," I finally said.
My dad sighed. "As I've been saying for the past week," he began, "you have to learn to be more responsible. I'm counting on you to be the man of the house when I'm gone."
"I know. You've told me this a thousand times."
"Well, when are you going to start listening?" He turned off of the main street and onto the dirt road that went to the Wilkinson's. There must have been a break in the clouds above, because the farm was illuminated by a faint touch of moonlight. I looked around, trying to find a glimpse of Annabelle, but I knew it was pointless. The farms were so big. When my eyes reached the Northwest side of the farm, however, I saw something much worse.
"Dad, there it is!" I pointed to the vortex off in the distance. It was probably the biggest tornado I had ever seen. My dad seemed to think so too. Then again, neither of us had lived in Kansas longer than a year.
"Jesus Christ. Do you know for sure that she's out here?"
"Yeah. I mean, I don't know. I don't think she could have made it home in time."
"So you don't really even know where she is?" My dad was fuming. He continued driving up the Wilkinson road until we reached the main house. He parked the car and slammed open the driver's door. A gust of wind instantly chilled the car, followed by a splash of rain. My dad walked around and opened my door--he nearly pulled me out. Together we fought our way to the front door of the Wilkinson's. I felt like I would have blown away if my dad hadn't been holding on to me.
"What's the matter?" Mr. Wilkinson said when he opened the door after my incessant knocking.
My dad looked at me, expecting me to respond. I cleared my throat and tried to talk over the rain: "Have you seen a girl anywhere on your farm?"
Mr. Wilkinson looked like I just asked the dumbest question in the world. "Son, there's a tornado out there," he said. "I've been in the cellar for the past twenty minutes. I barely heard your knocking. How do you suppose I would've seen a girl?"
I couldn't think of a response. I knew he was right. I looked at my dad for guidance. He only shook his head. "Sorry for the trouble," he said in a casual tone. "Please, we won't disturb you again." Mr. Wilkinson nodded and retreated back into the warmth of his house. My dad and I stood outside the doorstep for a while. I could tell he wanted me to think of what to do next. Is this some sort of sick test?
"I got it," I finally said. I started walking towards the back of the house.
"Do you really?" My dad said as he caught up with me.
"Yeah." At least I thought I did. The Wilkinson's farm was huge, and there were a ton of different places Annabelle and I liked to hang out. I figured--or rather, hoped--that she would be at the pond. That was where we always went when we were feeling low.
Well it was a long walk to the pond, and the threat of the incoming tornado didn't make me feel any better. "Son," my dad said after a bit of an awkward silence, "I don't think this is a good idea. It's not safe. If that tornado catches up with us... I don't think I could protect you."
"Dad, please, we're almost there." Through the dim moonlight I could see the outline of the pond about half a mile ahead; even further were the funnel clouds cascading every which way. I started to run, but my dad stopped me.
"It's too dark outside, and wet. You could slip on something and crack your head." So we just kept walking, against the storm, towards what I could only hope would be Annabelle. We were almost there when my dad said something else. "It was wrong of you to leave her here."
"I didn't mean to," I said, out of breath from all the walking. I thought a little about what my dad said, and then I continued, "But how is it any different from what you do?"
"Excuse me?" My dad said. He stopped walking.
"You always leave me and mom and Catherine home alone for months at a time. Like that time you went to Somalia. Or Honduras. Or all those trips you would take to Europe when we lived in West Point..." I decided to stop talking. I didn't want to make my dad any angrier than he already was.
But he didn't say anything. He just started walking alongside me again. He looked like he was confused, like he was thinking about something. "You're right," he finally said. "Every day I wake up and wonder if I'm doing the right thing. And sometimes I don't know the answer to that. But the world is a scary place, Tyler. Look around you. You have to be willing to make the right decisions, even if I can't." I was surprised at how calmly he was telling me this, even though I spoke so much against him.
We didn't say anything else until we got to the pond. I noticed that it was twice as large as usual, on account of the rain. I got down to the bank and yelled out, "Annabelle!" I didn't hear a response at first. I looked to my dad. He shrugged. I yelled her name again. A third time. A fourth time. It was no use.
"Tyler?" Annabelle's voice came from behind me. I turned around and saw her emerge from what looked like a tiny trapdoor in the ground. I ran up to her and gave her a hug.
"I was worried about you," I said.
"Are you kidding me?" She still sounded angry. "Do you think I'm stupid enough to just sit outside when a tornado's coming?" She motioned her head toward the trapdoor. "I found that underground hideout there when I was six years old. Never told anyone about it. Not even the Wilkinsons know about it." She looked ahead of me and noticed my dad. "Hey, Mr. Ashford."
My dad waved his hand haphazardly. It was his best way at showing affection to anyone outside his family.
"Well, do you guys want to come inside and wait the tornado out?" She walked back to the trapdoor and opened it, letting loose a beam of warm light from the interior. It was so enticing that I almost floated to where she was. "Hurry up now," she said. "Get in before all the rain does!"
When all three of us were safe inside of the hideout (which was nothing more than a dug-out hole with a lantern and a few gardening tools), Annabelle started telling us about how she first noticed the tornado. "It was actually pretty cool," she said as she sat down next to me and my dad around the lantern, all of us struggling to make the most of its warmth. "It was dark, and I didn't know where I was going, and I couldn't see very well anyway because of the tears"--she paused there for a little bit--"but, right as the storm began, there was a humungous burst of lightning and all I could see in the horizon was this enormous funnel cloud. I've lived in Kansas my whole life and I've never seen a tornado that big."
My dad nodded. "I suppose it was foolish of me and Tyler to try and come here."
But I shook my head. "No it wasn't, dad. Like you said earlier, it was the right thing to do." I looked at Annabelle kind of guilty-like, then I continued. "And...I'm sorry for making you cry." It felt really awkward saying that in front of my dad. But it had to be done.
Annabelle only laughed. "It's OK, Tyler. So anyway, Mr. Ashford, tell me all about where you guys are moving." And so for the rest of the storm the three of us sat there, talking about Georgia and Savannah and Fort Stewart, not a care in the world for the calamity going on outside. My dad even laughed once or twice.
When the storm finally cleared later that night, there was not a single cloud in the sky. "That's Kansas weather for you," Annabelle said. My dad offered her a ride home, but she said she would rather walk. I told my dad that I would walk with her. He smiled at me. That's how you treat a woman, I imagined him saying.
"Annabelle..." I began after my dad had left.
"I already told you, it's OK," she said.
"I know, it's just..."
She grabbed my arm and twirled around so that she was facing me. She looked so beautiful under the light of the cloudless sky. "I don't want to hear any more of it. We have a month. That's more than enough time to make up for one stupid mistake." And she kissed me on the cheek. I smiled back at her, and we held hands the rest of the trip home.