A hum comes over the wires, a message from the meteorologists who are miles away watching color patterns swirl and break apart on the Pulse-Doppler radar. Yellow, green, red, blue, black—pixels in all colors of the rainbow. It is beautiful, they think. Kaleidoscopic. Majestic. Aloud, one will begin the alert sequence: rapid air movement, supercell gathering into a wall, affected counties. The alert becomes an all-out warning because science makes it so.
Emails, text messages, faxes, phone calls; printers spit out paper with bold captions. An intern hands a radioman a piece of paper and points to a message blinking on the computer screen in front of him; he pulls his chair closer to the microphone and prepares to read. One county on the list is more familiar to him than the others, but Ted Waite is a professional and does not pause.
Weather Channel, cable access, amplitude modulation, frequency modulation. The warning follows proper notification procedures. A secretary picks up the phone to call her boss in the mayor’s office, panicky that she has forgotten something important in the protocol. Another staffer in another office runs down the hall to make sure the safety officer, who has been having troubles at home, is at his desk. Storm chasers who have been following the alerts pile into cars and floor it, determined to see for themselves: this time oh yeah this one.
Sitting at his desk holding a cup of cold coffee, Ted Waite watches the cloud front grow wider on his screen, brilliant green overtaken by a thickening yellow, with a deep crimson pulsing at the center. The hum rises to a chorus—whirrs, beeps, clicks. He leans into the mic. Take shelter, hold tight.
Not everyone has a radio. In Rose’s hayloft, a farmer’s daughter holds tight to other things entirely: the mutterings of a lost woman, adults coming and going, the clink of dog tags, a locket. A red folder leaning against the barn wall.
Sylvie rode her dirt bike through the corn, a path known by heart, careful not to ding the plants with her handlebars. Before the stone wall she hopped off, pushed for a few feet, and then shoved the bike behind some brambles and hoisted herself over. She scrambled through the thorny branches and scuttled low along the edge of Rose’s yard into the barn and up the ladder to the hayloft. Morning sunlight poured into the loft, softened by the haydust. A huge rush to get to this stillness.
Through the window Rose’s house leaned forward, wanting to tell a secret. Lance’s mother spent her days hacking at bushes and making herself scarce when anyone tried to visit. She was more than sad; there was an extra weight in there. As Sylvie had heard her dad put it, Rose was acting out of it—but that wasn’t exactly true. Rose was inside, far in, too far to come out and pay them mind. Sylvie knew because she spent most of her time here. She’d tried to talk to her early on—had walked right up to Rose and said, I want to see his room again. I need that picture he drew for me. But Rose’s eyes refused to focus. She seemed to not remember Sylvie’s name—her, Sylvie! Rose’s neighbor for her entire life.
Lance was dead. And his mother muttered to the empty house, slicing the branches until even the strongest, oldest ones turned brown. Sylvie watched it all from up in the hayloft. Her parents thought she was in her room or at school, if they thought of her at all. Lance was dead—and details that she’d known like her own skin were fading: the exact shade of his brown eyes. Red scratches rose on her forearms from shoving through the thickets. She liked them, they brought clarity. They got there because she was trying to understand things. Every time she clambered over the stone wall and pushed through the brambles his face flashed before her—then gone.
A familiar voice below: Dad talking to Rose in the yard, holding a rolled-up piece of paper. He looked younger and smaller from her vantage point through the high window, and he was asking for something but Rose was having none of it. Sylvie knew how Rose made him feel. He wanted to lease Rose’s land because it hadn’t been worked much in recent years. The soil was rich and they could transition it more easily to organic. He’d mapped it out at the dining room table, talking softly with her mother. Sylvie and her granddad had sat in the living room, watching an old war movie but also eavesdropping. Farmer’s markets, they’d heard. Sell direct to city people. Everything old is new again. In the movie, the girl cried for her soldier and looked beautiful in black and white: hair combed and lipstick and high heels; the soldier came home, wounded, and the girl nursed him back to health. Sylvie felt her granddad’s glare. He didn’t approve of much, but he cared about everything. When her parents came into the living room, Granddad pointed at the television, voice rattling with unspit loogies. A good war. A just war. Her father popped a beer open and said, I know, like he’d heard it all before. Turn it off, her mother said. Then they were all looking at her.
Now her father retreated over Rose’s stone wall, shoulders up around his ears, and she waited for him to notice her bike. Not a flicker. She wasn’t surprised. For a second she thought she should call to him. But I don’t want him to get what he wants, either. Her granddad said once that Rose’s land was cursed. People crushed and splintered and lost. Superstition is from the Devil, her mother said. And Granddad replied, Sometimes the Devil bears listening to.
Rose stomped into the house, her hair, her whole outline, vibrating like the weather vane on top of the barn. Down below, Fergus whimpered at the foot of the ladder. He liked to come visit. Being the only one she talked to, Fergus knew Rose was off her rocker before anyone else. Sylvie had cheese slices for him so he wouldn’t bark. Gradually, she’d brought over things to make the hayloft hers. First, a pillow and a wool blanket. Then a change of clothes. Some books and a journal. Snacks. Gum. Water. A flashlight because her granddad had told her to always have one around, and a milk crate to hold her things. It was nice to see how little she actually needed.
Fergus put his paws on the bottom rung of the ladder, and Sylvie unwrapped a cheese slice and dropped it down. School was a problem. Some days, like today, her mother gave permission not to go. Other days they didn’t know about. She had intercepted two letters addressed to her parents, warnings about absences. But she did her work; they couldn’t say she didn’t. The books and notebooks she needed sat in the crate. Ben Culp, Lance’s best friend, gave her the assignments she missed. Ben C. was supposed to graduate and sign up with Lance, but he’d flunked twice and his parents wouldn’t let him go without a diploma. Sylvie wondered if he was as bad at English as he said, or if it had to do with not wanting to sign up. Lance’s other best friend, Ben Logan, was in his second year at State. She talked to the Bens sometimes, and sometimes it helped. Other times she could barely stand to think of them.
Lance had told her she was his best girl, the only one. Though after he died Amanda Vega cried every day—sat in class with black streaks down her face, and didn’t even wipe them away. So Sylvie stopped going to school, until it went on too long and they made her go back. No more excuses, her mother said, palm hot on her back as she shoved her out the front door. You have to buck up, Sill. Her mother didn’t say her real name often. Sylvie could count the days since someone had spoken her real name: six. Nicknames didn’t count; Sill didn’t count. Lance didn’t call her Sill.
Fergus had swallowed the cheese slice in a gulp and lingered, waiting to see if another might be coming. Now he wheeled around and trotted away. Rose was on the move—a sputtering rumble started up from the driveway. She hadn’t driven anywhere since Lance had died, but now she had the truck going. Sylvie went to the window. Fergus put his paws on the truck handle and barked and barked until Rose leaned over to open the passenger door. He scrambled in, expending a lot of effort to get his legs up on the high seat. Rose started backing out even though the door swung wide.
“Hey,” Sylvie started. The word came out croaky. “Hey, don’t—” There was no way Rose could hear from this distance and over the rattling engine, but after another moment of backing up she stopped the truck and leaned over to close the door.
Hey, don’t do that, you’ll lose your dog, is what Sylvie was going to say. You can’t afford to lose anything else, Rose. If she’d shouted down from the hayloft, Rose might have taken it for the voice of God.
She doesn’t believe in God, Lance had told her once. Do you? she’d asked, though if he were damned to Hell it wouldn’t change how she felt. The light from the haywell made his hair dusty-shiny. They’d sit here in this hay, running fingers along each other’s thumbpads. Her thumb along his thumbpad—why did it feel so good? She had willed herself tiny so she could explore it like new land; hike along, plant a flag. Fergus whining below, their shoulders shaking, the sweet powdery hay smell in their mouths.
She touched her arm, pressing hard on the scratches the brambles had given her. Pay attention.
GENANNE WALSH lives in San Francisco. Her debut novel, Twister, was awarded the Big Moose Prize. Excerpts have appeared in Puerto del Sol, Blackbird, and Red Earth Review. Her other work has appeared in Spry, BLOOM, Swink, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College.
Author photo by Laura Duldner
Adapted from Twister, by Genanne Walsh, Copyright © 2015 by Genanne Walsh. With the permission of the publisher, Black Lawrence Press.