What You Can’t Take Back
Melinda R. Cordell
Copyright © 2017 Melinda R. Cordell
All rights reserved. Although the author has made every effort to ensure that the information in this book was correct at press time, the author does not assume and hereby disclaims any liability to any party for any loss, damage, or disruption caused by errors or omissions, whether such errors or omissions result from lemming attacks, eating dirt, bulldozer races, the cat barfing in the middle of the night, food poisoning, traveling back in time and accidentally keeping your parent from meeting, angry mallards, paper cuts, not knowing the words to “Back in Black,” or any other cause.
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CHAPTER 1 – WHY MY FUTURE SELF IS PROBABLY IN THERAPY
My day pretty much went down in flames after gym class. I struggled into my regular clothes in the sunless locker room under the bleachers, my back to the rest of the girls to avoid embarrassment (not that it ever worked). Though it was May, the radiators were still hot and their sulfur odor blended with the nose-twisting stink of armpits, sweat, feet, and despair.
“Eew, Zanny smells bad today,” Cindy said.
“It’s because her toilet is stopped up. And she doesn’t wipe.” Karen pulled on her polo shirt and turned up the collar like the cool girls do.
Cindy chewed cinnamon gum with her mouth open, making a smacking noise that I hated. “Yeah,” she drawled. Smack, smack. “Zanny took this huge dump the other day and the toilet overflowed.” Ha ha went the girls, that’s so funny.
They discussed me as if I wasn’t right there in the locker room with them. I didn’t look at them. That would only make it worse.
It never bothered them that they knew nothing about me except for those lies they made up. And apparently it didn’t occur to Karen and Cindy that they weren’t exactly smelling like roses either. But gosh, if we used logic in gym class, somebody’s brain might explode.
“Nobody at Zanny’s house knows how to flush a toilet. Not even her mom and dad. Gag.” Karen stuck a finger down her throat.
I don’t care what you say about me, I thought. [_But you slimeballs – don’t you ever, ever talk about my family that way. _]
“Shut up,” I said. It’s kind of hard to defend my family’s honor when I can’t talk my way out of a paper bag.
“Shut up, shut up,” they mocked like twin parrots, and went on to the next order of business: Zanny has 20 dogs that live in the house and fart all the time, so if you lit a match, the whole place would blow up. While discussing this, Karen and Cindy doused themselves in enough Love’s Baby Soft to give everybody in the world a two-minute stink warning.
I shut my locker door with a dull clang like a jail cell. Here, the instruments of torture were unwashed socks and snotty girls. I wished for the zillionth time that I could go back to my elementary school where everybody was nice and didn’t mind if you were quiet. At this big junior high school, where every seventh-grader in the county was dumped, being quiet made you into a ghost: invisible untouchable. Like in this locker room, where nobody spoke up in my defense. But, to be fair, why defend a ghost who can’t defend herself?
As always, I was so glad when the bell rang and I could go to English. We wrote stories for class and read them aloud every week. The classroom was bright with the May sun and the happy plants on the windowsill stretched skyward. And it was the last class of the day, an extra bonus.
In the hall outside the class, I found a penny on the floor. I scooped it up and wished that Karen and Cindy would fall into a big hole somewhere.
English started out great. As soon as we got our papers back, Jake spoke up without raising his hand. “What’s this? An A minus? This paper deserves better than that.” He brandished the paper in the air as if it were a sword.
I sat up. Yes! A debate! Debates were much more fun than diagramming sentences.
Miss Wisp smiled prettily, rising to the bait. “Jake, you got that grade because I’m afraid that your paper didn’t meet your ‘usual draconian standards.’ Because people, if you think I’m tough on your papers, you should listen to this guy rant about English standards,” she said, looking over her glasses at the class.
“You make me sound like Stalin,” Jake said. “Draconian. Please. You gave me an A- to drop the curve so everybody else in class could get a passing grade.”
Several students said, “Oooo!”
I grinned. I loved how Jake could argue and be funny in front of everyone. I wished I could talk the way he did, like he was crossing swords. What an adventurous way to live.
“You still got an A,” Miss Wisp said, amused.
“No, I got an A-,” Jake pointed out. “That’s a nine-point difference.”
“Maybe I should give you a 58-point difference instead.”
Jake stood in mock indignation. “Fifty-eight points? That’s an F! You’d give me an F for questioning your grading?”
“I don’t mind your questioning it. I do mind your overly confrontational style in doing so.” Miss Wisp raised a pretty eyebrow.
“Fine. I am what I am. Give me that F.”
She laughed. “Okay, you got it.”
“Hey, everybody, my draconian teacher gave me an F.” Jake leaned out of the open door and said down the hall, “I got an F.” Rebellion! I loved it.
“Get back in here before I give you another F, just for fun,” Miss Wisp said.
“You would do that, wouldn’t you? Fine. I’m calling the office.”
Miss Wisp singsonged, “You better not .…”
“Oh, yes, I will,” Jake singsonged back as he went to the intercom box. He pretended to press the call button. “Hey, office! I got an F.”
I laughed. I laughed so hard I busted a gut.
And peed my pants.
I FROZE, feeling the hot wet of my rear and the backs of my legs in the cupped plastic seat of my chair. My ears buzzed, and a wave of heat went over me like I was going to faint. I did not dare look down to see how bad it was, afraid that the people behind me would notice. I did not even move. This can not be happening.
Miss Wisp laughed. “You have an A-, so deal with it! Now sit down so I can start class.”
Jake shook his head, grinning. As went past me to his desk, his elbow accidentally brushed my shoulder, and a wave of heat filled my face. Dear God, please don’t let him notice!
To my relief, he sat quietly. Thanks, God. But my thoughts were racing. I had 45 minutes left in class. Was I going to have to sit in … my seat the whole time? I put my face in my hands. I was not going to cry.
Maybe the Russians would drop a nuclear bomb on us. Maybe some girl in the bathroom would spray so much hair spray that the school would blow up. Maybe … maybe … aw, who was I fooling?
Miss Wisp had us get out our journals. Today our writing assignment was “What my future self would say to me.”
Yeah, I know what she’d say. “Roxanne J. Calvert, always be sure to go to the bathroom when you need to. And never laugh at anything Jake says ever again.” And then she’d punch Jake in the nose for making me laugh.
I nearly snorted in laughter, but stopped myself. No! No! What if I peed myself again? Once was enough.
Maybe after class I could tell Miss Wisp? This was the last class of the day, so there wouldn’t be anybody around to see my shame.
But no. I wouldn’t have time to get Miss Wisp’s help after class. My bus was the first in the bus line, parked a million miles away at the bottom of the hill, and it was always the first to leave. If I told Miss Wisp, I’d miss the bus. Then Mom would have to drive 15 miles up from Nodaway to bring me home, and all the way home she’d want to TALK TO ME about how I peed my pants in class and how that MADE ME FEEL.
I chose to take my chances with the bus.
At the final bell, I waited for everybody to leave before I followed them out. I slinked down the dark hallways as fast as I could. Even on a May afternoon, the halls of the junior high were almost dark as twilight. The only windows were at the far ends of the hall, and the fluorescent lights high up in the ceiling buzzed and flickered. I was getting closer to the door … closer … closer … when I got a noseful of Love’s Baby Soft.
Red alert! Red alert! But it was too late. From behind me, Karen shouted in a voice that would raise an echo on a prairie, “Oh my God, Zanny, did you PEE YOUR PANTS?”
Oh my God, Karen, why are you SUCH AN IDIOT? was what I wanted to say, but all that came out of my dumb mouth was, “Idiot.”
“Only idiots pee their pants in middle school,” Cindy said with a snicker.
Her, too? Were those awful girls joined at the hip or something?
That door seemed to be moving farther and farther away from me the faster I walked. I wanted so badly to break into a sprint, but years of teachers saying, “No running in the halls!” echoed in my skull.
Karen and Cindy tailgated me all the way to the door. “See that big wet spot on her butt? Oh, gag! Can’t she smell herself? She smells like piss! Only worse than usual!” I kept my head high, pretending they didn’t exist. I ignored the kids who craned their necks as the donkeys brayed in my ears. I wished I could take that heat that was flooding my body, turn it into fire, and blast it into Karen and Cindy’s nasty faces.
I hit that door into the blinding May sunshine and sprinted for the bus. I was fast. There was no way they could catch me now. I’d outrun them plenty of times in gym class.
Escape was good.
Knowing that my escape would end at 8 a.m. tomorrow: very bad indeed.
CHAPTER 2 – BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
I slumped in my usual place on the bus, my rear making a wet spot (yuck) on the seat. My cousins were acting like blockheads in the back as usual. We were stuck on the bus for over an hour every afternoon as it rattled down endless gravel roads, and those kids would go nuts. Fortunately for me, the seats backs were high, generally protecting me from flying things. Today my cousins were throwing little erasers when the bus driver wasn’t looking. At least they were throwing erasers and not boogers.
I stretched my legs out on the seat and put my notebook on my lap. I was taking Miss Wisp’s journal assignment and running with it. Oh, if I could meet my older self, I would drag her back to my time and have her fix up this awful rotten crummy life of mine!
What my older self could fix for me
1) She’d drive me to school and back and get me away from my crazy cousins!!
2) She’d throw all the snotty girls out the window.
3) And punch their lights out.
4) And if they got up, she’d punch their lights out again.
5) She’d teach me how to talk and be funny.
6) She’d show me the great people I could be friends with.
7) She’d punch Jake’s lights out, too. Just for fun.
I arrived home, carsick as usual, and with a light coating of gravel dust because my cousins had opened every window on the bus. I went upstairs to my room. Refuge at last. Pink gingham flowers covered the walls, matching a pink bed and desk with a thousand layers of paint on them – Mom had them when she was a little girl. In the corner was a smaller desk made from an old radio cabinet with my unicorn statue on top.
I changed my pants, threw myself dramatically on my bed, and wrapped up in Grandma’s quilt, wanting to sleep the sleep of the dead. But my brain wouldn’t let me.
I sighed, took my old silver pocket watch off the bedside table, and ran my thumb over the beveled glass. This pocket watch wasn’t one of those cheap quartz dealies. This was a real silver watch with Roman numerals on its face and slim black hands that shone blue in the light. The watch filled the palm of my hand, a solid, comforting weight. Inside, tiny gears fitted into each other with the greatest precision. Tiny red jewels fixed inside the metal plates helped the watch run. Grandpa Vance said the jewels were made from actual rubies. He pointed at the parts with his rough, nicotine-stained finger and named them: regulator, balance wheel, hairspring, barrel (the mainspring was coiled inside), pallet fork, escape wheel.
Grandpa and I had found the watch in a box of junk at a consignment auction. The guy who’d owned it had been struck by lightning when he was wearing the watch. For some reason the guy blamed the watch for getting him zapped, so he put it into the sale. Grandpa won the watch for $10, and I’d repaid him out of my paper route money. The watch would have cost more if it worked, but I didn’t care. It was my time travel watch.
I wound the watch stem until the mainspring went tight. When I released the stem, the hands spun madly around the watch’s face like something out of a cartoon, with a tiny, satisfying buzz. The second hand went so fast that it made a faint, blue-black blur of a circle on the seconds face. The hands slowed, then stopped. “I’ve traveled into the future!” I proclaimed, but when I looked up everything was still the same, of course.
Now, if I could bring my older self back into my time …. Ever since I’d read Half Magic by Edward Eager, I’d been burning with a low-grade fever: the desire to find magic in the world. That was the reason I’d talked Grandpa into bidding for the watch. I wished on every coin I could get my hands on, gazed into wavy old mirrors in my great-grandpa’s house, touched every stone in this little town, wishing, wishing.
I looked at the watch. Grandpa always said, “Them that don’t ask, don’t get.”
I wound the watch up as tight as I dared, holding the stem with my thumb to keep it from unwinding, longing to propel my wishes far into the future. I imagined seeing my future self. I concentrated, sending my longing far before me. Please, I begged. I wished for her. I wished as hard as I could. I reached. And I let the watch stem go.
The watch buzzed its tiny mad buzz, the hands spinning around the center of their vortex. I reached farther, my heart aching. When the watch wound down, I waited a moment before I opened my eyes.
I was still sitting on my bed in my room. No surprise there, I thought with a sigh.
Except something in the air in front of me – moved.
Cautiously, I held up a hand, trying to figure out what I was seeing. In the middle of the air was a tiny bit of what seemed like smoke. As soon as I found it, it untwisted and dissolved .
I blinked hard. Nothing.
I had to have imagined that. Maybe it was a bit of eye snot from when I had my eyes shut. Maybe it was a tiny gnat that had flown away.
But my hand still searched the empty air as if it knew something that my brain didn’t. “Them that don’t ask, don’t get,” I murmured. An odd feeling flitted across my heart like a ghost-fire. My scalp prickled.
I lowered my hand. My chest was starting to hurt: fear, excitement, dread.
I’m not going to get excited. I’ve made wishes before and nothing happened. I’ve prayed before but prayers don’t come true. I’m not going to get excited.
I cupped the watch in my hand and wound it, keeping my thumb on the stem so it wouldn’t unwind, until the mainspring was tight and could not take one more click. Holding the stem with my thumb, I focused on the place where the smoke had been. Breathing slowly, I imagined my older self, calm, older, smarter, and way more powerful than me. I wished until my heart hurt. I reached with my heart and spirit. I concentrated. And I let the watch stem go.
The watch buzzed. The hands spun. With everything in me, I reached everything I had toward my future self.
The buzz of the watch died away. I opened my eyes.
Tiny tendrils of gray mist twisted and uncurled from a pinpoint of what seemed to be the coldest substance on earth. The pinpoint was four feet away, but even at that distance I felt an edge of biting cold that hinted at its danger. Colder than ice, colder than metal, colder than the vacuum of deep space.
I was on my feet, clutching the watch against my chest, feeling my heart thunder. The magic actually took.
But they never said anything about how scary it was to have this otherworldly thing appear right in front of me. This was against every law of nature I’d learned in science class, against everything I’d learned in the world and in church. The story of the Witch of Endor I’d read in The Bible Story flitted through my mind.
But yet … but yet I leaned forward, holding my breath, afraid that the slightest movement of air from my lips would disturb the mist that wisped down like a deadly gas, as if the edges of two worlds met and reacted like something out of chemistry.
Then, before my eyes, the pinpoint stretched into a line, thin and grey as a strand of spiderweb. The strange mist trickled from along its nearly-invisible length. I backed away, shivering. I didn’t dare touch it, this pale line of intense, burning cold. My hand tensed around my watch. My mind raced. What if something bad happened from this thing?
The line heaved forth a huge gout of freezing mist. Something burst through the line, straight at me.
I shot backward so fast that I crashed into my radio cabinet desk in the opposite corner of the room, bruising my lower back and jabbing my arm on the unicorn statue’s horn, staring at a person … a person! who flew out of the mist with a short scream. She landed hard on her right shoulder and skidded to a stop on the carpet.
Instantly her head was up, turning to the left and right and making scared noises. “Oh my God. What the – what the ….” She glanced at her hands, looked at them again. She jerked them around the carpet as if not knowing how it got there. She looked up to the right, at my window, and made a surprised hiss of breath.
Then she saw me. She gaped and went really still. “Dear God. I can’t believe this.”
Dizzy and scared, my heart was bursting to run. I was shaking at how impossible this was. _There. Was. No. Way. _
From downstairs, Mom called, “Zanny? Are you okay?”
I had to answer her. I breathed deeply a few times, trying to get my emotions and body under control. I HAD to keep my voice normal or else Mom would be up the stairs in two seconds flat to see what was going on. “Everything’s fine,” I said, except it came out like a question about an octave too high. “I mean it’s FINE. I dropped some books!” That was more like it.
“Well, you don’t have to snap at me,” Mom huffed from the bottom of the steps. Her steps faded back into the kitchen.
“I wasn’t snapping,” I murmured. I sank against the wall, heart pounding, staring at the woman. One moment, her face was like mine – funny turned-up nose, straight brown hair, thin lips – but the next moment it flipped into the face of some stranger. I had wished for my older self to show up, and there she was, but my brain was not accepting it.
The woman pushed into a sitting position. She scrubbed her arms with her hands like she was freezing and stared at me with red-rimmed eyes. Stared at me like she knew me. “Zanny?” she asked, voice shuddering. “Was that Mom I heard?”
“Yeah. That was Mom. And this is my room,” I whispered. I could not get any air behind my words. “And you’re … me. You’re my older self.”
Oh, man, this was weird. I lifted a hand in a feeble wave. “Hi … myself.” And all of a sudden my eyes prickled with tears.
“Are you all right?” she asked, her voice kind and sympathetic.
“Yes, I am. I’m just so … so glad!” And like an idiot, I started to BAWL. I couldn’t believe it! What a great way to say hi to my future self!
“It’s okay.” My future self hugged her knees, taking a quick, amazed look all around my room, but then looked right back at me. “No, really. It’s going to be okay.”
I put my watch down (amazingly, it had stayed safe in my hand the whole time) and covered my face, embarrassed by my stupid tears. “Ohh, I’m sorry ….” I peeked out. “Do you like my room?”
She laughed. “Well, yeah.” She struggled to her feet, stretching her hands to my plant table and my Skiddoodlean village I’d made. “This is weird, because on one level I am scared to death. But at the same time, it’s home. Being here …. It’s like putting on a pair of shoes I used to wear as a child and finding out they still fit.” She took in the big, gingham-checkered flowers on my wallpaper; my red Panasonic tape recorder that I kept next to my clock radio to record music, my orange quilt that Grandma had made. I felt all happy and fizzy inside to see somebody – my own self! – looking at my room and admiring it. “My knitting box,” she murmured at my wallpaper-covered oatmeal box in the corner. “Augh, that cactus,” she added to a cactus that sat alone on my dresser. “That thing is Tweezer City. Oh, man, this is crazy.”
The love in her voice made me want to cry again, because someone – even if it was myself – loved my room as much as I did. It was the best feeling I’d felt for a while.
“Pull yourself together, kid,” she said in a friendly way, like she understood how I felt.
Well, duh, of course she would. So I rubbed my face and took a big breath. “Does everybody still call you Zanny?”
“No, I go by Roxy now. I switched my name to Roxanne when I started college, but … eh. Too formal. I finally ended up going with Roxy instead. Only people who have known me since I was a little girl call me Zanny.”
Zanny was kind of a childish name, wasn’t it? “Do you get mad at them?”
“Nah. Actually, it comes in handy. Sometimes a stranger will come up to me and say, ‘Hi, Zanny!’ and then I know it’s an old family friend from when I was little. I like that a lot.”
At that moment, she passed through the window. I gasped. “Oh, no,” I breathed, taking a step back.
“What?” asked Roxy, turning toward me.
Or I think she turned toward me. Because the light through my window shone through Roxy, and all I could see, as she stood between me and the light, was a gray, Roxy-shaped mist, like a fog lit up by the morning sun.
I shut my mouth, feeling the tremor in my jaw. “Are you … are you … a ghost?” I asked without meeting her eyes.
With a gasp, Roxy looked down at herself. “Oh, no.” She reached for the dresser for support … and her hand went through it … and she fell through the dresser. For a second she struggled on the floor, part of her head, arm, and shoulder inside the dresser. Then she rolled across the floor toward me, eyes shut. I jumped back.
“Am I out of that danged dresser yet?” she snapped.
This had to have been the weirdest question I’d ever been asked. “Yeah….”
“Geez. I can’t believe this!” She opened her eyes, got to her feet … and immediately turned toward the wall and thrust her hand inside it.
I squeaked. “Stop it! You’re scaring me!”
Roxy pulled her hand back, clutching it, staring hard at the wall. “Okay. Okay. I fell through a dresser. I stuck my hand through a wall. Okay.”
“And light shines through you.”
She turned her eyes on me.
“Um. Well. It does.”
She turned her face away. “Oh, good God,” she said as if to herself. “I was hoping it wasn’t true…. But it was. I’m a ghost.”
Though I was scared out of my noggin, I grasped for something to make her feel better. “Well … maybe being a ghost can be fun.”
Roxy did a double take. “Zanny. Tell me how people turn into ghosts.”
I huffed because the question was so rude. “Well, duh, they ….” At that moment, it sank in. Roxy wasn’t asking a general question about ghosts. She was talking about herself.
The bottom dropped out of my stomach. “Roxy!”
She held up her hands and stopped me in my tracks. “Look. I don’t know how I got here, or what on earth is going on. But.” She let out a big sigh, shutting her eyes. Her voice was low, gravelly. “The moment before I got here, I back in my own world, my time. I was driving up to Topeka to see Dad.”
It sounded weird that she didn’t say “Mom and Dad.” Just Dad.
“I was going around a curve past Effingham when some idiot veered into my lane. I didn’t even have time to scream. I felt this huge impact, like a world earthquake, like my body ….” Her eyes opened and with a grunt she shoved her hand forward, palm first, as if thrusting it through the wall again. “Bang.” She let her hand fall. “And all of a sudden, I’m here. Back in my past. And I’m a ghost.”
CHAPTER 3 – DECISIONS AND REVISIONS
“Maybe you’re in a coma?” I asked.
Roxy shook her head. “It was head-on. Bright light, like nothing I’ve ever seen. Flying forward. And suddenly my body punches through this cold like I’ve never experienced, and then I’m flailing around on your bedroom floor. There’s no way I could have survived that … Geez.” She slid her hands back on the sides of her head. “I can’t believe I’m not having a falling-down freak fit just talking about it.”
“Yeah, me too,” I said, but my legs said whoa and I sat, quite suddenly, on the bed. “You’re in shock.” And so am I.
“Hm.” Roxy nodded. “Yeah. Crap, I shouldn’t have told you even that much.”
On one level, I couldn’t believe Roxy was a ghost because she was dead. That seemed like a made-up fact, like tooth fairies and unicorns: unreal. About as likely as me being … you know. And yet another part of me wanted her to STAY in shock because there was no way I wanted to hear about that any more.
“Listen,” I said before Roxy could speak again. “I called you back in time because I hate seventh grade and I needed your help. So I was wishing on this pocket watch I had, and then you showed up! So you’re meant to help me. I’m just happy you’re here.”
Roxy smiled, though the smile was faint. “Thanks.”
“But this is actually good. See, you’re here, instead of in some … um, car wreck.” Oh, shouldn’t have mentioned that. It was making me dizzy and sick, and I charged on to get my mind off that. “And you can help me. You can change my life. And if you change my life – if we change it – then maybe the car … the thing won’t happen. And then you won’t be a ghost.”
Why did grownups have to be so stubborn? “And yeah, my idea sounds like some dumb TV show.”
“No, it’s not dumb.”
“But shoot, that’s the best explanation I can come up with. I think you’ve come back to the past to change whatever went wrong in your life. My life.”
And that got me out of my dizzy/sick feeling. It would be like a TV show. I’d change my life and then we’d be all right. She and me. Us.
“You’re right,” Roxy said, like she was trying to comfort me. “If we’ve been blessed with this power, then let’s use it wisely. Let’s find a way to make things better for other people, not just us. Maybe that’ll please God enough and change our timestream enough to get me back home, alive.” Roxy passed her hand in and out of the wall a few times, like she was thinking something over. She turned back and surveyed me. “First, though, I want to try something. I’ve been racking my brain for a way to get back to my old time, because I want my family to know I’m okay. You mentioned a pocket watch?”
“Yeah.” I picked it up and held it out to her. She reached to touch it.
Her finger grazed my hand. There was a huge SNAP and it was like this huge blue bolt of electricity blasted me in the hand and burned straight up my arm and through my body. The next moment I found myself on the floor, three feet back from where I’d been, my eyesight swimming and my ears hissing. I had to look to see if the watch was still in my hand (it was) because I couldn’t feel it.
“What did you do that for?!” I said, my words slurring.
Roxy was curled over herself five feet away. “I didn’t do it on purpose! I got zapped when my hand touched yours. God almighty. I am not doing that again.”
“You better not.” I didn’t mean to be mean, but everything was freaking me out this afternoon. Being zapped by a ghost who was supposed to be me didn’t help matters any. I lay down on my floor on my back and watched the static go looping and swooping against the ceiling for a minute until my sight gradually cleared up.
“Set the watch down on the floor,” Roxy said. “I promise not to touch you again.”
I put the watch down on the gray carpet between us. She settled in on her stomach and elbows over it.
“Did you zap me because you’re a ghost?”
“I already said I didn’t zap you on purpose.”
“You know what I mean.”
Roxy sighed. “Maybe that electricity popped out because I’m an intruder on your time frame? And I’m not supposed to affect anything in your time? I don’t know. I’m scared to touch anybody else to find out. That hurt, and I don’t want to hurt anybody the way I did you.”
I felt sorry that I had been mean to her.
Roxy dipped her finger into the watch. There was a tiny pop, like a bit of static electricity in winter. “That’s odd. I’ve passed my hand through other non-living objects and have never felt an electric pop. Only with this watch. And look.” She moved her hand around the watch, and it seemed like her hand and the watch were magnets, repelling each other. “There’s a field of some sort all around the watch, and my hand wants to skid over it. But if I push, I can pass my hand through the watch.” She did it again, and there was that little pop.
“So there’s some kind of force around the watch? Is it magic?”
“I don’t know a blessed thing about magic. I wish I did.” She passed her hand across the watch’s face. “Where’d you get this watch? Because I don’t remember it at all from when I was your age.”
“Really? Wow, you must have a bad memory,” I teased.
“No worse than you, you crazy nut,” she teased right back. “I’m serious, though. Tell me how you got it. I honestly do not remember any of this, not even meeting my older self.”
I stared. “You didn’t meet yourself when you were my age?”
“No. I swear. That’s why this whole thing took me by surprise.”
Shocked and amazed, I stammered out my story about the guy who was struck by lightning selling his watch in a box of junk. I told her about my awful day with peeing my pants in class and how Karen and Cindy saw, and then wishing so hard on the watch as I let the hands spin, and about being bowled over when Roxy came hurtling through the gap in the air.
“I do remember peeing my pants in class. How could I forget,” she muttered ruefully. “Not to mention Karen and Cindy …. Zanny, what is today?”
“It’s the first of May. 1984. I’m in seventh grade.”
“Ugh. I hated seventh grade.”
That made me grin. I guess some things you don’t forget.
“But you did that today, right? Peed your pants?”
My face got red. “Yeah. Why?”
Roxy just nodded, her face grim. “Let’s just say that you called for me at the exact right time.”
“Why? Are you saying that something else is going to happen to me tomorrow??”
“Listen. What happened to me is not going to happen to you,” Roxy said, her voice shaking. “And that is final.”
I sat back, scared as a mouse. I could read Roxy as well as I read myself. And whatever had happened to her all those years ago – the thing that was going to happen to me tomorrow – still scared her to death. My heart failed. How could she help me if she was still scared?
The next moment, though, Roxy got to her feet. “Put your watch away for now,” she said sternly, as if addressing her fear. “We’ll work on it later. It’s already seven. We need to start getting ready for tomorrow.”
I set the watch on my desk. “What are we going to do?”
Roxy reached for my closet door but her hand passed through the handle. “Ack! I can’t get used to this ghost thing …. Open up the closet for me. First we’re going to find some clothes that look good on you. Then you’re going to get some help with your hair.”
I glanced in the mirror. My brown hair was as straight as could be, and it was oily. I turned away so I wouldn’t have to see my ugly face. “Will I have to wear makeup?” I groaned.
“No, but you will learn how to handle a curling iron and feather your hair. You will also learn that hair spray is your friend.”
“Hee hee! I miss big hair. But not that much. Now find me some shirts you really, really like.”
I huffed and threw my arms out. “How are stupid clothes going to help me?”
Roxy squinted into the closet, hands behind her back. “When you find clothes that you look good in, that you’re comfortable in, then you feel more comfortable in your own skin. And that is a big part of the battle right there. Find a shirt that does that for you.” Roxy stepped aside.
I looked at my clothes and groaned. “But how’s looking nice going to help me? Maybe they’ll get a bunch of ketchup and squirt it all over me. Nice clothes won’t help me then.”
“Well, if you see them reaching for the ketchup, run,” Roxy said.
I rolled my eyes.
“And Zanny, did you forget that you have a ghost on your side? I got your back.”
“You got my whaaaat?” I turned out of the closet.
But something else struck me. “So does that mean you’re going to school with me?”
“Well, sure! I’m here to help, right?”
I clutched a shirt and jumped up and down. Roxy was going to school with me! Maybe she could zap those stupid girls! Maybe she could haunt them! “Yay! I can’t wait.”
“Calm down. You’re still going to have to talk to those girls.”
That stopped my jumping right there.
Roxy held her hand above my arm and the hairs on my arm prickled. As she moved it closer, a creepy snowstorm sensation made me shudder and pull away. “Well, I can’t pick up Karen and throw her out the window,” she said. “Too bad, too: that would really make my day. What they’re doing is wrong. It’s time they stopped.”
But something in Roxy’s voice didn’t sound confident. Like she was still scared of them. And maybe she was scared that we’d fail. I’d never seen anybody win against bullies before. Why were we so dumb to think that even a ghost from the future could change things? And who’s to say we weren’t going to make things worse? Though I enjoyed imagining Karen flying out a window, a little squirm of fear started up in my stomach.
You have to admit, I thought, that even seventh grade is a lot better than being in a car wreck. Or being dead.
If I change my life, then I can save her life, I thought. Correction: Save my life. Not only tomorrow, but later on in the future.
[*CHAPTER 4 – I WENT BACK TO MY PAST BUT ALL I GOT *]
WAS THIS LOUSY SHIRT
Roxy had me dig through my closet and then she had me try on some jeans and set aside the clothes I didn’t like or that didn’t fit. That lasted for about 5 minutes. Good thing I didn’t have a whole lot of jeans. I had a few pairs that I liked. And there were
“Are we done yet?” I groaned. “Don’t you remember how I hate shopping? And this stupid clothes stuff wasn’t going to help me! My looks weren’t going to make a darned bit of difference when Karen and Cindy came after me like hungry dinosaurs!”
Roxy said to hush that complaining and go take a shower.
“I wasn’t complaining. I was telling the truth.”
“Zanny. Trust me. To beat the bullies is not just about working on them. It’s also about working on yourself.”
I had to wonder, but I obediently got my pajamas to take downstairs. But then I remembered my mom and dad. “Do you think Mom and Dad will be able to see you?”
Roxy sort of gasped. “Oh, I wish they could. I want to talk to them so bad. But I doubt they can see me.” She wilted.
“Why would you want to talk to them? Are they … um …?”
“No. They aren’t. But they’re so different now,” she said quietly. “And I’ve forgotten how they used to be. Like right now.”
“You keep telling me that nothing is going to happen to them. Then you go around acting like something is going to happen to them.” I fidgeted with my pajamas. “Which is it?”
“Zanny. It’s called time. Look. If you can change into me over the course of 29 years, then how much do you think Mom and Dad and everybody you know will change?”
I looked at her face, close to mine. I could recognize myself in some things. I could see where the dog bit me on my cheek, but the scar was real faint. The scar I got when I was 3 and jumping on the bed now blended in with the furrows on her forehead. “Do Mom and Dad look really different, too?”
“I don’t know. I’d have to look at their younger selves. Let’s go.”
We sneaked into the kitchen and peeked around the edge of the doorway into the living room, where Mom and Dad were watching TV.
But instead of peeking around the corner with me like a smart ghost, Roxy just said, “Oh!” and went straight into the living room. “Mom? Dad?” she asked.
I gritted my teeth. What did she think she was doing?? I didn’t want them to see Roxy! I wanted her all to myself!
But Mom and Dad didn’t turn around. They just kept on watching their show. I slumped against the doorway with relief.
Roxy glided up to the couch, sliding her hand – the way I often did – on its smooth, wooden side. Mom sat on the couch with her feet up on the coffee table. Dad reclined in his armchair as usual, watching [_Happy Days _]with his big orange glass full of Pepsi on the end table.
“They’re so young,” Roxy murmured, amazed.
What? Mom and Dad didn’t seem young at all to me. But then again, I wasn’t almost 40, either. Well, actually, I was almost 40 – my other me was. Geez, this was really getting mind-boggling.
Roxy leaned against the couch and gazed first at Mom, then at Dad. “Huh,” she said quietly, shaking her head. Dad had changed out of his mechanic’s shirt into a T-shirt, and he’d recently shaved off his moustache. His face was bare without it. Dad’s hands were rough, and his thumbnail was this weird color of black and blue, smashed by something at work. This was typical; he was usually up to his elbows under car hoods, fixing up Toyotas. He was good at it, ASE certified; people would bring their cars in and want Dad to work on them himself.
Roxy glided in front of the TV, as if she wanted to make super-sure they couldn’t see her. Through her legs, the Fonz strutted around Al’s Diner, looking cool. Mom made no response. Dad drank some pop.
So they couldn’t see her. I waved her aside from the TV because the Fonz was saying something funny.
But Roxy didn’t move, like she didn’t notice the TV was on even though she had to make her voice louder to be heard over the canned laughter. “I figured if I was going to be hanging around, I should just show myself and get it over with. Then we wouldn’t have to sneak around all the time. Of course,” she said, gliding over to Dad, “I really wanted to talk to Mom and Dad. I guess that’s not going to be the case, though.”
“I’m going to go take a shower,” I announced to the room in general.
“Okay,” said Mom without turning around.
“Scrub your face,” Roxy added. “Use a washcloth. A fresh one!” Dad tapped out a cigarette.
Annoyed, I went into the bathroom.
Once the latch clicked behind me, Roxy said, “Enjoy your cigs while you can, Dad,” sounding faint through the door.
She didn’t lecture to him the way Mom and I did about the bad health effects of smoking in the house. No. Enjoy your cigs while you can. So he was going to die of lung cancer. But not while Roxy was alive. And she had been driving to Topeka to see him, but not Mom. Geez. And now here I was, not only worrying about Karen and Cindy and what they planned to do with my peeing my pants episode, but now I had to worry about myself being possibly dead at 39, AND my dad having lung cancer. This is stupid! There needs to be a return policy on time travelers! Especially when the time traveler is me!
When I came out later in my pajamas, my wet hair wrapped up in a towel, Roxy glided out of Mom and Dad’s room. “Hey, Zanny. Ask your mom if you can try on some of her shirts.”
Whoops, I said that out loud. Dad looked at me. Mom asked, “Who are you talking to?”
“I’m just talking to myself,” I huffed.
“Come on. Ask your Mom.” Roxy gestured me over.
Augh! But I did. Mom just about had a heart attack and made a big deal about my NEVER wanting to borrow clothes from her.
“First time for everything,” I grumbled.
“Aw, come on, give your mom a break,” Roxy said. “She loves you.”
That stopped me in my tracks. “I just wanted to wear something different,” I said in a nicer voice.
Mom was really happy then, and she talked about how wonderful this was. We went to the closet door, which was wide open as usual, and Roxy pointed out several shirts she saw. They looked all right when Mom held them against my front.
“Tell your Mom thank you,” Roxy said, but I knew that.
Mom had me show Dad my shirts, and he said “Well, sweetheart, that looks nice,” and Roxy and I went back upstairs.
“So if Mom and Dad are okay, then why do you look so sad?”
“And why were you going to see Dad in Topeka? Why wasn’t he with Mom?”
“Long story,” Roxy said, whisking to the window. “Oh, man, I’ve always wanted to see everybody again. I’ve missed Nodaway so much!” Then she thought of something and grew quiet. “Wow,” she said, subdued. “Everyone’s alive again.”
But why wasn’t she talking? Does something bad happen?
I went to the window, being careful not to touch her, and looked out on my little town. It was evening, and the light was fading on the hill. The spring trees were almost all leafed out, and the redbuds on the side of the hill going up to my uncle’s house had finished blooming, and my 36 cousins up on the hill were running all over the place. (Actually it was only five cousins, but they managed to make a large crowd out of themselves.)
“So who dies?” I asked.
“The usual suspects, of course. Your great-grandpas. And then some other folks.”
“I can’t say.”
“Why not? You can tell me.”
“Basically, it boils down to needing to keep your future your future, not my version of your future.”
“Roxy, tell me!”
“I need more time to tell you my reasoning behind my madness.” She shut her eyes and passed through my window screen and my wall. “If I open my eyes when I pass through stuff, then I get stuck and freak out.”
“That doesn’t answer my question!”
From downstairs, Mom said, “Zanny? Who are you talking to?”
“I’m praying to God!” I shouted back.
From the roof outside my window, Roxy said, “God doesn’t answer questions personally, you know.”
“Roxy, come on. Why are you running off?”
“I’m not running off. I’m just going to work on your question for a while. I’ll see you tomorrow morning. During the paper route.” Roxy glided to the edge of the roof and … plummeted out of sight.
“Aw, crap!” she cried from the ground. “I need to work on this lighter-than-air thing.” Then she glided away across the yard, turning her head and staring at everything as she went. She actually stopped and hugged herself once. Then she crossed the tiny lot next to the abandoned store, looking around at everything, and headed down the sidewalk.
“Roxy, dang it.” I said out the window, knowing she couldn’t hear me. I wished I could have gone with her, but it was 9 o’clock and I was tired. [_You’ll see her during the paper route tomorrow, _]I told myself.
I looked at Nodaway, trying to imagine I was Roxy, seeing it again for the first time in years. The hill rose in front of me, up to my aunt and uncle’s house. My uncle hollered, and all the cousins started going inside, though one was still running laps around the house. Grandpa Vance’s coon dogs, in their pens, bayed once at something and were still. Grandma’s chickens were probably settling down on their roosts in the chicken house under the apple tree. I heard a truck rumble over the bridge and then speed up as it headed down the blacktop. Now that the sun had set, the blue sky was growing a deeper, richer shade of blue over my little town. I could see Charlene’s and Olga’s house on the main road, the blacktop, and beyond them some of the elms in the park by the railroad tracks. Nodaway, as far as I was concerned, was the most beautiful place on earth.
But not even its beauty – and wondering what time would do to my little town – could distract my mind from tomorrow. I sank into bed, my window open, listening to the wind in the trees and a few late robins winding up their songs, but my dread kept me from enjoying it.
CHAPTER 5 – PREPARING FOR THE SHOWDOWN
We went through the old back door by the cellar and down the steps. Around the corner came Cricket, my golden Lab, wagging her tail and tossing her head like she was ready to play.
But then Cricket stopped in her tracks and lowered her head and tail, her nose quivering, the whites of her eyes showing as she glowered at Roxy. Then, completely unlike herself, Cricket slinked away.
“Don’t go,” I said, following Cricket, feeling bad for Roxy. I put my arms around Cricket’s neck, stopping her. Her tail thumped twice against the back of my leg, but she peeked around her shoulder at Roxy.
“It’s okay, let her go,” Roxy said sadly. Cricket’s ears perked a bit at her voice, though she made no other move.
I let Cricket go and we started across the yard. Cricket followed at a short distance to keep an eye on me. What a good dog.
We cut across the weedy lot past the old store, now all boarded up, and down the sidewalk toward Grandpa Carl’s. Roxy was sucking in the sights like her eyes were vacuum cleaners and she did not dare miss a spot.
I imagined seeing the town through her – my – eyes. Nodaway was a little town with about 50 people, and almost everybody in town was related to me, which I thought was pretty nice. The sidewalk, buckled by the occasional visit from the Missouri River, emerged from the dirt in front of the old store, went along in front of four houses, then vanished again. A small country highway ran past the houses, but gave up at the “State Maintenance Ends” sign and became a dirt road. Out on the highway, my beagle Sugar was snoozing in the afternoon sun. She lifted her drowsy head, her tail stirred in greeting, and then she lay back down again. Well, it wasn’t like a car was going to show up any time soon.
Cricket, having sneaked up behind me, nudged at my hand, and I petted her. She stayed on my left side, keeping me between her and Roxy, and she turned the whites of her eyes toward the ghost. Roxy didn’t notice, too busy gawking everywhere, running her hand through the old fancy-wired fence, spray-painted silver, that ran in front of Charlene and Olga’s house. And here was Grandpa Carl’s house, with all the boxes on the front of the front porch where we put the newspapers for our customers who lived up on the river to pick up on their way to work. Roxy went into Grandpa’s yard and sat down on the concrete where the old pump was, smiling at the handprints that had been put into the concrete who knows how many years ago. She tried to fit her hand into one, but her hand was too big. Mine was just the right size.
“So what happens to me in the future?” I asked. “Do I get married? Do I have kids?”
“Hmm. Hey, look at that little bird over there,” Roxy said, pointing at the cedar. Some little whistles came from the cedar and she whistled back.
“What happens to Dad in the future?”
“Whoa, you picked that up, didn’t you.” Roxy frowned, still squinting at that bird. I couldn’t even see it. “Well … I probably should not say.”
“What? Come on! Why not?”
Something tiny flew out of the cedar, and only then did Roxy turn to me. “Look. Every time I watched a time-travel movie with … er, my dog, I’d always think, Man, if I could go back in time, I would tell them everything that was ever going to happen. But now that it’s actually happening, I’m wondering what my best course of action would be.”
“Your best course of action would be to tell me everything! Like the name of your ‘dog,’ for instance.”
“But no, really: let’s say I told you your future. Let’s say I told you – and I’m making this up, okay? Let’s say I told you that you have 23 kids and move to Albuquerque to become a roller skate salesman. If I told you that, that would change your future, right?”
“No. Obviously my future’s already happened if you’re here.”
“I would have thought so too. But now it gets interesting. Before today, I had no memory of seeing my future self show up in the past. But in the past hour or whatever, memories of a different past are emerging, as seen through your eyes, 29 years ago.”
“Yes, but what’s really weird is that my recollection of these events are different than what you and I experienced. Some key bits are missing – probably because my memory, over time, forgot some things and screwed up some other things. And things that you noticed – that I noticed when I was you, technically – are different than things I noticed when I was there.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well, the whole time your brain – my brain – was running around being very busy. This time around, I was fixated on your room and … feeling this crazy weird feeling like I’ve opened a time capsule of all this stuff I haven’t seen for ages. But it’s like I feel like I’m more fixated on the things and people, while you’re paying more attention to your interior world, what’s going on in your head and heart.”
The thought stretched my mind like rubber. “So your memories – or the things I remembered – turned out to be different than what you ….” I couldn’t find the word.
“Experienced,” she finished. “But you already know that memories don’t always hold up so well in the mind. When our uncles are telling a story and they’re correcting each other? That’s because they were all there and they remember all these different pieces and they forget other bits, and then they tell a story and try to see what pieces fit and what don’t.”
Or like when my cousins or brother tell a story about something that happened, and then they say, “But you were there, Zanny. Don’t you remember?” And I have to tell them, “No,” because nothing they said ring a bell. And they try to give me little details about what they were doing and what I was doing, and I still haven’t the foggiest idea. It drives me nuts!
Roxy continued. “But – if this event – our meeting – never happened before, then we are changing time right now. We are changing the events in our lives. Do you understand what that means?”
I thought a moment before I answered. “This means that you are going to change.”
“Whoa! That too! And maybe I don’t want to change! … though it would be nice if I had more money,” she added wistfully.
“Maybe I should change that.” Though I wondered how much paper route money I’d have to save over the long haul to do that.
“Well, yeah … wait! No! Because what if these changes means that I lose, in some way, the people I love now in my life?”
“Hey, come on, it can’t be all bad for me to change my life for the better.” And maybe I could save myself from being a gray ghost who has to go back in time! I thought.
“Well, no. You are absolutely right,” Roxy said, but like it bothered her. “But I also want you – me – to have a choice. If I tell you who I married, or what I career I chose in college, then you might come to these turning points and say, ‘Well, maybe I want something else.’ And then what?”
“Well, weren’t those decisions made already? Didn’t you have to make decisions?”
“Yes, but you haven’t had a chance to make them yourself. If I tell you your future, you might feel like you’ll never had any say in your life. No chance to make your own choices. So that’s why I’m saying, I can’t talk about the future.”
“But you told me I was going to college.”
“Well, you already decided that when you were in 5th grade one day when you were reading an article in Reader’s Digest.”
“You still remember that?”
“Apparently I considered it pivotal.”
We – I – was quiet for a little while. The whole thing with Karen and Cindy swam back into my mind, and despite the amazing thing that was happening to me right now, my stomach took a nose dive, leaving me queasy and scared.
“What are we going to do about tomorrow?” I whispered.
Roxy jumped a little and turned right back to me. Seeing her worried for me made me even more sick and scared. She knew what was going to happen to me tomorrow, and dreaded it. But then she frowned like a hawk at a mouse. “They have no right to treat you like that. They do it because … well, I’ve heard about Karen’s home life. But lots of people have lousy home lives, and they don’t take out their hate on other people. What we need to do is to stop them for good.”
I didn’t sleep too well that night.
The next morning, when I was on the paper route, Roxy floated up to me. “I’m still here. I don’t feel like I needed a whole lot of sleep, so I slept for a little while and then woke up, and I felt fine, so I watched the animals. I saw some coyotes, but they didn’t come near me. I think they could see me, the way Cricket could.
“But you know what?” Roxy asked, floating in front of me so I had to stop walking. “Watch this.”
She shut her eyes. Her outline wavered a little bit but nothing happened.
After a moment she peeked an eye open. “Don’t look. You’re making me nervous.”
I watched her from the corner of my eye. And suddenly Roxy’s shapes and colors swooped upward, compressing into a little spot in the air. A little ruby-throated hummingbird hovered in that spot, its wings a blur. Her tiny green feathers were as iridescent as a real hummingbird’s, and she was a female bird with the white throat.
Roxy buzzed around my head, her hummingbird body swinging about every time her blurred wings changed direction. “Look! Look what I did!” she cried. “Isn’t this the coolest thing you ever saw?”
I gawked in happy amazement. She was so pretty! And she acted like a real hummingbird, like the ones I saw at Mom’s feeders. She was no bigger than my index finger. Her feet were tucked into her white feathers, two bitty black lines. Roxy’s wings made a blurry hum near my ears, and she stuck her tongue, like a little red thread, out of her needle bill a few times with small peeps. “Now I can go everywhere with you,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about crashing into students. And this is fun. Except I have this incredible craving for sugar water right now.” She zipped to the left, to the right, as if some big red flowers would magically appear.
“Do you want me to find you some flowers?”
“I’m not really hungry or thirsty. But I get these cravings all the same. After a while they fade. It’s strange not to eat,” she added, and hummed down the dirt road to the next mailbox, where she zipped around it and poked at the red flag on the side with her needle bill. Bemused, carrying my newspapers, I followed.
I really liked Roxy being a hummingbird. I guess that if a ghost can walk through furniture and walls, then the ghost could change shape. Also, a cute little bird would be easier to talk to than a human, even if that human was a grown-up me. Animals were always better than people.
Roxy the ghost hummingbird followed me into the house after I got all my papers delivered. I sat at the kitchen table, eating cereal and reading the paper, and Roxy hummed over the pages, reading as well and complaining about Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy, whatever that meant. I turned to the funnies.
After breakfast she chased me into the bathroom. “You are going to get prettied up and you’re going to like it,” she said. So I had to use the curling iron, even though I was scared to death of burning myself on that thing because my hair was too short on top and I was really awkward trying to manage it while watching myself in the mirror. But soon I was done. I looked kind of nice. I liked how the shirt looked on me. Then Roxy said, “You look good. Now spray the heck out of that hair and come on!”
When I got on the bus, Roxy buzzed around the ceiling, then slowly sank back down until she was humming next to the window with me. “You know, I should save a little energy,” she said, and since I was sitting alone, as usual, she hovered over the empty part of the seat and then turned into herself again and sat down. But she kept an eye out for the highschoolers, who this morning were wrestling innocent bystanders. “I’m not going to be zapped and I’m not going to zap anybody and that’s all there is to it,” Roxy said, “even if they deserve it.”
My nervous quivers had faded, since Roxy was coming to school with me. But as the junior high school hove into view, my nervousness came back in triplicate because now a confrontation between me and Karen was going to happen, whether I wanted it or not.
Our junior high building was so old that the building was crumbling around us quickly enough so the maintenance man couldn’t keep up with its decay. The tall windows were regular slide ‘em up windows with the square panes, and there were some water stains high up on the walls. Teachers generally covered these up with inspirational posters that usually had a kitten clutching a limb with its front paws, back paws sticking out into space, that said “Hang in there!” or grumpy bulldogs that said “I hate Mondays.” Some walls had to about be papered with posters. The walls were painted white, and the water stains would make brownish ovals and river-like lines down their sides.
In these classrooms, there weren’t a whole lot of plug ins, so some outlets would have this forest of cords sprouting out of them. Downstairs, some company was removing asbestos from the pipes in the ceilings, so the work area was surrounded by this flimsy group of translucent plastic sheets that hung down from the ceiling but it was no problem to see the exposed pipes they were working on. If junior high didn’t kill you, the asbestos would. And power would often go out in the office if the poor secretaries plugged the coffeepot in to the wrong outlet.
The school board really wanted to build a new junior high before this old building crashed down around our heads, or completely shorted out from all the stuff plugged in that the electrical system couldn’t handle, but the people of the county kept voting down the school bond requests. “The building was fine when we went there so it’ll be fine now.” Only thing was, these folks went there a zillion years ago, like in 1925, and it was like they had no idea that all these years had gone by. Like they were guiding their perceptions off this memory where the school was fresh and new and not now, when it was such a doggone wreck.
I sat down my first hour Math class and prepared for another exciting day of Death by Division. Miss Rummy, a plump, gray-headed lady that reminded me of a robin, was talking about division and it was reeeeeally exciting. The chalk snapped against the blackboard as she wrote out numbers and divided them like crazy. The rest of the class was pretty quiet. Roxy hummed around the classroom in invisible hummingbird form, investigating the other students and the things they wrote on their papers.
Then I realized I was staring at Roxy – realized the other students would think I was staring at an empty spot in the air – and I went back to pretending to take notes.
Roxy buzzed back to me over the heads of the students like a tiny green missile and turned back into herself, her whole body dropping out of the air from the spot the hummingbird had been. Now she wore a long, flowing, green dress, the same color as the hummingbird.
She leaned over, not touching me, and frowned at my Math notes. “You better take more notes on the material. I’m not kidding, either. And then while you’re taking notes the way you’re supposed to, I’m going to go haunt the halls and find Karen and follow her around. I’m going to try to get some info on her that will help you this afternoon.”
Yeah, like maybe the password to her Fortress of Evil. I think Karen has Science this hour, I wrote on my notes, keeping my hand covering my writing.
“Sounds good. I’ll go take a peep at her.” Roxy looked at me like she was my mom and I was her kid, which I liked. “Hang tough, kiddo. I’ve got some work to do.” She walked out the door, heading toward the Science classroom.
Hang tough? The future had better have some better phrases than that.
When class was almost over, Roxy buzzed in in hummingbird form. “I’ll walk you to your next class,” she called out in the silent classroom, making me jump, and then all the other students laughed at me. I glowered at my notebook. Gee, thanks a lot.
Walking down the hall, Roxy wasn’t much better. She buzzed up and down and all around, exclaiming like crazy. “Oh, look at that hair! Ha, there’s Linda! Oh, everyone is so young, they’re like little kids!” (I didn’t think we looked like little kids at all.) She looked into faces, at their clothes and shoes, poked her sharp little beak into their duffel bags and into their lockers. She’d buzz right over some students’ heads to eavesdrop on a conversation, which earned her an annoyed look on my part. “Sorry!” she laughed. “I’m catching up on all the things I missed out on.”
“What do you mean, missed out on?” I muttered.
“Oh, nothing. Ha! I love 80’s hair!” she cried as two girls passed us with big poufs of feathery, permed hair. I wished I had hair like theirs. My hair always lay limp on my head, even after I tried to curl it.
“I didn’t miss out on anything,” I added, bugged. Of course I watched people! But I couldn’t watch them too closely because I didn’t want them to make fun of me, obviously.
“I mean the stuff around you.” Roxy buzzed over to some girls talking by their lockers. “Man, this is great. I wonder if I could build a little tiny nest in her hair.”
“Don’t you remember what it was like to be in seventh grade? Do you think I’m enjoying myself here?”
“I didn’t say you were,” Roxy said, hovering next to my ear. “I definitely didn’t care for it when I was you. I’m wondering, since I have some perspective on the whole matter, what you can do to improve your standard of living.”
“Do you have to sound like Mom when you’re saying that?” I grumbled.
A girl who was walking down the hall near me leaned in and said in a snarky voice, “Excuse me? Who are you talking to?” The girl walking at her side sniggered.
I scowled. See what I mean? I thought at Roxy.
Roxy was a little green flurry in the air, and I wished she would reach out and jab the snarky girls with her cold little beak.
Instead, Roxy made a circle eight in the air. “Yes … yes. I don’t mean to sound like my mom. But at the same time, I wonder how much of my problem was from how I trapped myself in my own thoughts of nobody wanting me to be their friend.”
I huffed and rolled my eyes. Oh my gosh, I cannot believe she’s talking like Mom!
“I heard that, young lady. More on that later,” she said as we reached class.
I had to smirk a little bit. I was being scolded by a little hummingbird!
But I wasn’t smirking when it came time for Gym. I swear that my heart was about to hammer its way out of my chest and my armpits were on overtime and making me smell goaty and obviously this was not helping my confidence any, especially when Karen came in through the double doors across the gym, giggling with Cindy and looking right at me. But this time, Roxy was in human form, floating right behind their heads, listening to every word.
Roxy reared up and shouted across the gym, “You wouldn’t believe what these two awful girls were up to.”
I started because she was furious. Karen and Cindy saw me flinch and they made a beeline toward me across the gym floor.
Roxy rolled along right at their heels. “They were laughing at Wendy and telling her what a retard she was. I’d give them retard if I could, right now.”
“Laughing at her?” Wendy is a girl in a wheelchair who talks really slow, and I guess she is slow, but if you lean in and listen to her patiently, she’s nice to talk to. I sat next to her in art class and I liked making her laugh.
“They upset Wendy and I couldn’t do a damn thing about it!” Roxy snapped.
“You were laughing at Wendy?” I said as they came up. “What’s the matter with you?”
They started laughing at me. “You weren’t there,” Karen said. “You don’t know nothing. You’re such a baby, you should wear a diaper.” She and Cindy shared a snarky look.
My face went so red that I could hear a static noise all through my ears.
“They’re doing it again!” Roxy said. “Don’t let them knock you down.”
“What would you care if we want to talk to a retard?” Cindy said.
“Are you talking about yourself, Cindy?” I blurted. “Because only an idiot would say that.”
Cindy’s face got red too. “Shut up, little pissant.”
All my big words drained out of my head and I stared at her. All I could think of to say was, You shut up, like a little kid.
Roxy was at my ear. “Good girl. Now say what I say. Let me talk through you.”
I really, really wanted to run away, but I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction. And Roxy was so mad, that I let her talk, and I repeated everything she said.
“You should listen to yourself,” I said, echoing Roxy. My voice was taking on a really, really bad quaver like I was about to cry. “You two march around like some queens, but all that comes out of your mouths is trash. I don’t know why you two don’t crawl away and die in shame. I don’t know how you keep from throwing up when you think of the things you say to people.”
And then I started crying. I always start crying in these situations! And then I want to crawl away and die in shame myself!
And now, even worse, a bunch of girls started cheering and clapping from behind me. Oh no! Now they’re cheering on Karen and Cindy! My face crumpled.
“No, no, look!” Roxy said, amazed. “They’re cheering you!”
I didn’t look because my face was a mess. But now I heard somebody say, “Yeah, you tell ‘em!”
Roxy shouted my next phrase.
“I’m not scared of you,” I echoed. “I’m not scared of you!” I said again, more confidently when I saw the shock on their faces. “You think you can boss me around with your stupid talk? You should hear what people are saying about you, Karen. Except what they’re saying about you? It’s worse than anything you’re saying about me. And all of it is true.”
And then I couldn’t stand there anymore. I marched into the bathroom and honked my nose into about 50 miles of toilet paper.
I thought for sure that I would be dead meat when I came out, but I was too exhausted to resist. But when I came out, everything seemed normal. The girls were going out on the floor for their warm-ups. I went too. But some of the girls smiling at me as I went by, which was weird. And Karen and Cindy were off in the corner, cutting their eyes at me and kind of sulking.
And, even weirder, the Loose Lip Duo stayed off in the background during the badminton games. I was having fun swatting the birdie around, and they didn’t bother me once.
And in the locker room, one of the other girls chatted with me, asking if I had any pets, talking about her beagle. Karen and Cindy didn’t say a thing. They dressed and slammed their locker doors and left without a word.
Roxy had popped in and out all through class, having vanished once the action was over, but kind of checking up on me to see how I was doing. She appeared next to me as I sat on the bleachers, waiting for the bell to ring. “Hey,” she said. “Good job.”
I shrugged modestly, though in fact I was actually starting to feel like I’d actually won this battle. It was the weirdest feeling. I wasn’t supposed to win these things. I kind of felt like Charlie Brown accidentally kicking the football, like he got to it before Lucy pulled it away. But then he’d go to kick the football again, and then she’d pull it away, and he’d land on his back again.
Sometimes I wonder if my brain really is on my side or if it’s actually a double agent that was working really hard to mess me up.
Roxy murmured, “I cannot imagine being that hungry, so in need of someone to break. Can you imagine what it would feel like to live in that kind of mind? Can you imagine how awful it would feel?”
“Oh, come on,” I murmured to her. Maybe she should stop passing her so-called pain to me, _]I thought. [_Then we’d all feel better.
All the same, I was happy to see Karen and Cindy all glum, and Roxy was chatting it up, and so I followed her to my last class of the day, my favorite class, English. It was story day, and I loved story day.
“Oh, man, I loved this class,” Roxy said. “What stories are you working on now? Wait, don’t tell me. Show me when we get to the room.”
We went in through the doors. “Ha! There’s Miss Wisp! My goodness, wait a minute, she’s not that wispy after all. And there’s –“
And Roxy stopped. She froze, staring at the back of the room, her mouth open. Startled, I followed her gaze.
Sitting down at the back table, where he sat every day in English, was the 8th grade student helper, Jake. I got a little embarrassed at having peed my pants because of him and looked away.
But Roxy said, “Zanny. Quietly tell me again what month and day this is.”
“Um … it’s May second,” I whispered.
Roxy stared at Jake, looking like her dog got hit by a car. And very quietly, she said a bad word that I usually saw scratched on the inside of bathroom stalls.
Before I could speak, Roxy said, “Sit down and don’t say anything.”
And she vanished.
She didn’t come back all hour. Apparently she’d forgotten about my story.
I couldn’t get Jake out of my mind. When the last bell for the day rang, I looked at him. Nothing was wrong with him. He was gathering his books and gave his sarcastic laugh at something Miss Wisp said. I could stare at him longer – wanted to stare – but I got out of there as fast as I could.
I looked for Roxy in the hall. She should have been easy to find because she would hang around next to the ceiling so she wouldn’t touch anybody, but she wasn’t there.
When I got home after school, I walked to Grandpa Carl’s house – Great-grandpa’s, actually, my dad’s mom’s dad – because I was reading him a long article out of Reader’s Digest about new theories about space. I wasn’t very good at reading aloud. I always read too fast and kept forgetting to slow down. Sometimes speaking is like running down a steep hill. I start out all right, but then my feet can’t keep up and then gravity takes over and then I crash!
I went up the old sidewalk under the big silver maples in front of Grandpa’s house. One maple had nails hammered into its side to show high-water marks for various floods. The highest nail, at eye level, was from the flood of 1951, which President Truman called the worst flood he’d ever seen. It was so bad that the river changed course, leaving a piece of St. Joseph stranded in Kansas and moving the river away from my own town. The flood of 1979, which I remembered from when I was eight, had a nail about three feet up, about waist-high. The floodwaters came up to the side of our yard but didn’t reach my house. However, a gar washed up there. A gar is the ugliest fish in the world with a tiny alligator mouth and tiny sharp teeth. It was the craziest thing I ever saw.
I went up to the front door and let myself in, saying “Hellooo,” so Grandpa would know it was me. Grandpa was napping on the saggy couch, his back to me and his legs tucked up, his feet in brown socks. Above him, the old mantelpiece clock whirred and struck the quarter-hour with a golden chime. When Grandpa heard me, he pushed himself up on his elbow and sat up, gently setting his stocking feet on the cracked linoleum floor. He was in his 80’s, his bib overalls now too big for him. He found his wire spectacles and put them on over watery blue eyes, and smoothed down his gray cowlick. His skin hung loose on his face like it was a size too big for him.
“Hello there,” Grandpa said in his soft, blurred voice. “Are you here to read now?”
“Good. I like to see my granddaughter. Help me up.” Grandpa put out his hand. I took it and he pulled to his feet. He went to his armchair and lowered himself into it. I got the magazine and sat down in the armchair next to him, in front of the silent TV.
The room was quiet. The old clock raspy tick filled the room, a friendly sound that I loved. I began to read. The afternoon sun colored the window shades and sheer curtains pink. A train came through town, shaking the room and filling it with clatter. I read louder. Outside the big south window, I could see the light flashing between the coal cars. Then the green caboose went by and the train’s noise abruptly faded.
As I read, tripping over every other word, something glided into the room. It was Roxy, who had finally shown up. I narrowed my eyes and thought at her, Where were you?, in case ghosts had ESP.
Roxy went on being oblivious, staring at Grandpa. So much for telepathy.
“Oh my goodness,” she said to Grandpa, who was lounging back in his chair, big hands folded in his lap. “Keep reading,” she urged. “I’m going to look around at everything. I promise I’ll be quiet.”
I remembered her strange behavior with Jake in English class and my heart did a little nervous shuffle, but Roxy gave me a frown and I settled down to reading. She sat on the old heater next to Grandpa, studying his hands, his face, his clothes, shaking her head like she’d never seen him before. I had to smile as I read. I was so lucky, being able to go back and see everyone again when I was older. I’d always wished I could go back in time and see Nodaway in the old days, when my great-grandparents were teenagers, when the big steam locomotives stopped at the old depot, which had been gone for ages, to take on water and let off passengers and drop off mail. I wanted to see the old bank and the old store and the old post office as they were long ago, and visit the blacksmith’s that Grandma told me about, and see the town when the river flowed right next to it, when Nodaway was so lively and bustling and filled with people and horses and life. Not only a sleepy place that people sped through on their way to someplace else.
I went on reading. “Many physicists agree with the many-worlds model, in which each decision splits the world into separate universes. It is said that every decision can create a new universe – even decisions as small as choosing cookies over apples, or watching the Dukes of Hazzard instead of PBS.”
“The better decision would be to shut off the danged TV,” Roxy muttered from where she sat on the heater.
I read aloud a little longer until my mouth got too dried out to continue. “You did fine,” Grandpa said in his soft voice. “We can read again tomorrow. Why don’t you get yourself a cookie?” He slowly raised himself out of his chair. I moved the scrap of paper I was using as a bookmark to its new location, then put the Reader’s Digest on the old table by the door and headed to the kitchen.
Roxy glided at Grandpa’s side as he shuffled into the kitchen. “Ask Grandpa if you can look inside the big trunk,” she said.
That got my interest. In Grandpa’s room was a big old steamer trunk that I’d seen opened only once – on some rainy day when Grandma Marie and Mom was going through it and I was peeking over their shoulder. He had lots of family stuff in there, letters and whatnot, the way my Mom kept all the stuff from her childhood and ours in her cedar chest. And I always loved opening the chest and seeing all that old stuff come out from the past, each thing with its own special story. But that was long ago. “Grandpa, can we look inside the big trunk?”
Grandpa gave a little dry chuckle as he stretched up to click on the AM radio. “It’s getting close to suppertime for you, isn’t it?”
I shrugged. “Yeah, probably. But what if I come out here right after school and read to you? And then we look in the trunk?”
“It’s mostly old letters. But you can look.”
This made Roxy radiant. “All right! Say thank you.”
Well, I was going to do that anyway. “Thanks, Grandpa. See you tomorrow.” We gave each other a loose hug and he patted my back, pat pat pat, and then I was out the back door and heading home.
As soon as the screen door banged behind us, Roxy said, “Now this is going to be a weird request, but can you bring your notebook to Grandpa’s tomorrow?”
“In that trunk are some love letters that Grandma Ruby wrote to Grandpa Carl when they were going out in 1910.”
“Going out? Love letters? How old were they?”
“They were teenagers. Only a couple years older than you.”
“No kidding?” I tried to imagine Carl and Ruby being teens but could only imagine a young couple in 1910 clothes with wrinkled faces. “Did he show you the trunk, too?”
“No,” Roxy said sadly. “In 1993, there’s going to be a huge flood, bigger than the flood of ‘51. Uncle Rr… I mean the current occupant, piled everything up on the bed, including the trunk, which he’d kept, because that’s what worked in previous floods. But nobody expected a flood like this one. It was epic.”
Epic? I imagined something out of Ben-Hur or Spartacus. “How high did … how high will the waters get?”
Roxy pointed toward the roof. “To the top of Grandpa Carl’s porch. The floodwaters were so high that Grandpa Vance paddled the canoe around the house, cleaning out the gutters. Needless to say, the floodwaters got the trunk. This place was flooded for a solid month. After the waters went down, Grandpa Vance cleaned out the house and threw everything out into the front yard. I went through the waterlogged letters, as many as I could. I found two letters and a postcard from Ruby to Carl. But that was all. Later on, everything else was taken out and dumped.”
Stunned, I stared at Roxy.
“Now, if you borrow some of the letters and copy them down, at least we’ll have something of Grandma Ruby’s later on down the road.”
I looked back at Grandpa’s house. The gutters around his porch were 12 feet off the ground, easy. I imagined Grandpa Vance canoeing around the front of the house, scooping maple leaves out of the gutter with his skinny arms, cigarette drooping in his mouth. There was no way the river could get that high. Except it had. Or would.
It was so weird that I was the one expected to protect the past … that I had power to change the future, and recover a little bit of what would be lost someday.
And then I remembered the other message that Roxy had let slip.
We crossed the little bridge along the side of the hill, heading toward home. “Speaking of the future,” I said, “tell me why you said a bad cuss word when you saw Jake today.”
Just then Mom started ringing the cowbell out the back door, my signal to get home.
“Ha! I forgot about that cowbell,” Roxy said, but not as enthusiastically as usual.
“Tell me.” I stopped in the middle of the bridge and crossed my arms. “I ain’t going in until you tell me.”
Roxy shook her head, frowning. “Is the 4-H spaghetti supper coming up?”
“Yeah. Next week. We’re supposed to help serve.”
“Zanny. On the night of the spaghetti supper at the Fairgrounds, there’s going to be a big storm. A night tornado. Part of the fairgrounds building is going to collapse. On that evening, Jake and three other kids are going to die.”
It wasn’t even real. A ghost telling me that people I knew were going to die. Her news bounced off my head like it was a rolled-up newspaper. I let it lay.
Mom yelled out the back door, “Zanny! Come on!”
“I’ll tell you more after supper, if you’re up to it,” Roxy said gently. “Get on inside.”
June 8, 1966. Topeka, Kansas. F5.
[_ I grabbed the cat and headed for my basement in which was stored several large wardrobes full of my Aunt Daisy’s clothes. I had a radio down there and turned it on to hear Rick (the DJ) on the radio saying, “The tornado’s coming down Burnett’s Mound AFTER ME!” At the same time, on my TV Bill Kurtis was warning, “For God’s sake, take cover now!” And I thought, “Oh my God, I’ve never even HEARD of anyone living through a tornado and I’m #$^#[email protected] gonna die!” I pulled one of those big wardrobes full of clothing down on top of cat and me. I heard “the train” and it was as if I was lying next to the train tracks as it passed…I heard a thundering roar and the ground shaking. The extreme drop in pressure made my ears pop painfully. Air evaporated. I could barely breathe. _]
I ate supper with my family. My older brother, Ray, sat across from me, elbows everywhere. He piled his food into a mountain and ate it all. I picked at mine, and Mom got exasperated that I didn’t eat that she made me stay at the table after supper until I ate it. I picked at it some more until she finally gave up and let me leave the table and gave the leftovers to Ray, who finished the job for me of course. “Gotta keep my physique looking good,” he said, making a muscle with his bicep. Oh gag! I got out of there.
I sat outside on the back step with Cricket nuzzling at my hand to get me to scratch her behind her ears. I was going to be at that dinner that night. My 4-H group, the Amazonia Golden Eagles, was going to be in the spaghetti line, serving. All the area 4-H groups were raising money so they could fund stuff like citizenship trips to Washington D.C. and other educational events.
Night was falling and occasionally a robin or a blue jay would swoop into a tree to settle down for the night. Except for one blue jay that shot past me, singing out, “Wheeeeeeee!” Definitely not a blue jay kind of song. The jay banked, circling back, and changed into Roxy, who dropped out of where the blue jay had been flying, wearing a flowery blue-and-white dress.
“Blue jays are nuts,” she informed me. “Wow!”
I cut to the chase. “So who-all died?
Her eyes got big but she said, “Okay. The kids who died were Jake, Liza, and Christian,” and it was weird to be hearing about a future event in past tense. “Jake, Liza, and Christian are in junior high. My husband used to hang around Jake in junior high.”
Now I really listened. Because that meant that whoever my husband was going to be, he was in school with me RIGHT NOW.
“Well, this is what happened that night,” Roxy said quietly. “I was helping my cousins and brother serve spaghetti. Man, I was getting so hungry, ladling out spaghetti and smelling that yummy garlic bread. Jake was further down the line, dishing out the garlic bread. I sat down and ate and he was goofing around with one of his friends. I was watching him because Jake was really funny. He was doing a Howard Cosell imitation and he was really good at it. You know, I haven’t actually heard Howard Cosell for ages. Funny.
“But anyway, 4-H was going to have some kind of boring dance later on. Ray and I didn’t want to go. Mom wanted us to. Well, that was one good thing,” Roxy said quietly, “one time when it was good that we didn’t want to do what Mom said. So we loaded up in the van and headed home. I was really scared going home because the rain was slucing down and lighting was flashing everywhere and Mom was telling us to stop hollering and whimpering – technically, she told me – and the wind kept trying to blow her off the road. The storm cleared up by the time we hit Amazonia, so we got home fine.
“Anyway, after we got home, I was getting ready for bed when Mom shouted downstairs, this weird shout like I never heard before. I ran downstairs in my nightgown, and Ray about fell down the stairs with me. We were both going, ‘What happened, what happened?’ And we got to the living room and the TV was on Channel 2, and the newscaster was telling us that part of the roof had fallen in at the Fairgrounds during the dance. A freak tornado. Maybe a microburst from the squall line that formed the tornado. Lots of people were hurt.
“The next morning, I took a newspaper into Grandpa Carl’s house. I went into the kitchen where he was eating breakfast, and the radio was on KFEQ, telling us that four people died and one of them was Jake. School was canceled for Thursday and Friday. I don’t remember much about going back to school on Monday, except for Miss Wisp standing in front of the class with tears on her face, asking us to write essays about what we remember about Jake. I wrote this dumb thing about spaghetti and about hearing the news. I didn’t know Jake all that well.”
I wished it didn’t twist my mind around so much, hearing my self from 29 years in the future telling me that I would be part of the last hour of my classmate’s life.
“Well, time is changing, right?” I asked. “You’re getting new memories all the time – through my eyes – so obviously I’m changing something already.”
“Well, yeah. But I’m still a ghost.”
Roxy covered her face, went Arrgh, then looked at me. “The distinction’s pretty important to me. Seeing as, because I’m still a ghost, I still assume I’m dead.”
“Oh.” I’d managed to put that out of my mind. I felt around for my bed behind me and sat, looking only at her.
“Yeah. As you see, that’s kind of a problem for both of us.”
I desperately wanted to know what had happened to her, but I couldn’t open my mouth – too scared to intrude even though it was me standing there. I shot her a pleading look.
“I’m not sure how much to tell you,” she said. “I can tell you that I’m using myself as an experiment – how can I affect the timeline? Because I don’t want to leave until this thing is fixed.”
Well, obviously, because if she left the timeline she’d be – dead.
I’d be dead. But I dumped that thought right out of my mind.
How drastically could I change the future? Could saving the life of a classmate who I hardly ever spoke to do the trick? Could I save my own life by changing that history? Maybe even convince everybody in the building that a tornado was coming and that everybody needed to get downstairs. I could even be a hero! And Karen and Cindy would have to mope in the corner about my newfound popularity.
That night I lay awake, imagining myself on the packed dance floor, grabbing somebody important and saying, “Tell everyone there’s a tornado!” and everybody would run downstairs. And I’d be the last one downstairs – I wouldn’t go until Jake started down the steps – and Jake would be with me, and we’d turn around in time to see the roof ripping off with a scream of wind, and we’d see the walls topple. Jake and I would run downstairs and get out of the way of the fury barely in time, falling down and landing safely in a heap at the bottom of the stairs. – but imagining that gave me an odd, confused feeling. So I kept thinking about it.
The next day at school, I looked for Jake in the dark hallways in between classes, listening for his sarcastic laugh. He was really smart, and I figured he was good with English stuff. I wondered if I should get on yearbook next year so I could see more of him … after I saved his life, that is.
Then, when I was going down the hall to Miss Wisp’s class, I saw the back of Jake’s head in the crowd before me, with his short-cropped, brown hair. As he walked, half a head over most of the people in the crowd, I couldn’t help staring at the back of his head. I wanted to get closer and hear everything he was saying. But at the same time I was scared to death of him – no pun intended. Like maybe death was contagious, like the flu, only a little more permanent.
I walked a little faster. Jake’s polo shirt was neatly tucked in; he carried his books at his side with his long arm, he strode ahead without looking around, as if deep in thought.
I could tell him. I could say, “Jake, don’t go to the 4-H thing, because if you do, you’ll … suffer permanent damage.” It was like, if the Guinness Book of World Records had an entry for World’s Awfullest Secret, that would be it.
But I didn’t get a chance to think any more about other world records my situation would break, because then Karen and Cindy waylaid me.
“Hey, what the?” I said.
They grabbed me and hustled me sideways into the girl’s bathroom, which happened to be unoccupied, naturally.
“Can we talk?” I asked as I was hauled across the bathroom floor.
“No, and I hate Joan Rivers,” Cindy said.
“Put her in the trash can!” Karen said.
“Well, that’s a dumb idea,” I said as they grabbed my arms and legs and hoisted me up.
But the metal trash can was about waist-high. They got me only about a foot off the ground before the strain was too much for them and they had to put me down again.
“Well, that’s helpful,” I said.
“Shut up!” said Karen.
“How are we going to get her in there?”
“Hey, you,” Karen said, pointing. “Stick your head in there.”
“In the trash can? Are you nuts?”
“Stick your head in there or I’ll beat you up!”
I couldn’t argue with that kind of logic, so I leaned over the paper towels in the trash can. “This trash can is pretty full,” I said. “And it’s lined with a plastic bag. This will be a health hazard if you put me in here.”
“Then take the plastic bag out! Take out the towels!”
“Now look, I don’t want to do all this work if I’m going to be shoved in there head first.”
About halfway through the sentence, they got tired of talking because they grabbed my legs. The world revolved so the dim ceiling lights were suddenly under my feet; and I was plunged into soft darkness among a million damp paper towels. Karen whined, “Look out, she’s going to piss her pants!” Which was dumb, not to mention that I was surrounded by absorbency. The Loose Lips fled, giggling. The bathroom door thumped shut.
The blood rushed to my head as I struggled to get out. “Help! I’ve been plagued by idiots! Dang it, Roxy, where are you?” I cried, my words muffled by damp paper towels. But I had to take action, seeing as I was surrounded by plastic, and all of Mom’s warnings when I was a kid to DON’T PLAY WITH THAT PLASTIC BAG rang in my ears. I kicked my legs. At first the can didn’t move at all. Then I kicked back against the towel dispenser on the wall. The can fell. Too bad I was stuck upside down in a trash can, where I couldn’t break the fall by putting my arms out. I couldn’t even get them around my head because of all the paper towels. So CLANG I hit the ground, full on my tummy, the metal seam at the top of the can striking me in the diaphragm right below the rib cage. My head felt like it had been rattled around inside a bell.
Now that the trash can and I were flat on the ground, I tried to get out but the wind had been knocked clean out of me and I couldn’t move my arms. At least the danger of suffocating had just been halved, because if I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t suffocate.
The door squawked open and someone said, “Oh no! Are you all right?” She took hold of my ankles and heaved. Since she didn’t warn me what she was up to, she dragged me and the trash can across the floor, which made the most amazing noise that the paper towels around my head did nothing to muffle. But the second time, I wormed my arms to the bottom of the can so I could push as she pulled. A moment later I was on the bathroom floor, shaking paper towels off me and stuffing them back in the trash can. Fortunately the absorbency of the paper towels that had surrounded me, and the redness of my formerly upside-down face, hid the fact that I was my usual teary-eyed mess, so at least I had that going for me.
The girl who’d helped me wore cowboy boots under her jeans, working boots with dried mud flaking off of them as she crouched on the floor, stuffing paper towels into the trash in a no-nonsense way. “Who did this to you?” the girl asked as she worked. “If you point them out to me I bet I could catch them if I had a horse and lasso.”
From a high window in the wall, some afternoon light streamed in from outside, and I suddenly recognized this girl. “You’re Liza,” I said quietly. “You’re going to be at the spaghetti supper. You’re going to ….”
Fortunately my brain was quick enough to clamp down on the last part of my sentence.
“Yeah, I’m going to that,” Liza said, scooping up the last of the paper towels. “Are you?”
My heart thudded. “Um, yes.”
“You’ll like it. They started doing the dances last year. I thought it would be boring as dirt, but they did a great job with it. Helen – she’s the extension lady – showed us how to do congas and line dances, and the DJ was hot.”
The bell rang. Oh no! I was tardy! I set the trash can upright, wanting to say a million things to her but having no idea where to start. “Thanks for helping me,” I said, which was lame.
“No problem,” Liza said. “But if you need someone to beat on the kids who did this to you, I do have connections.”
I ducked out before I could be tempted.
The hallway was empty. I rubbed my eyes with my sleeve and dashed down the hall. Roxy wasn’t anywhere to be found. Typical! She should have been here! Maybe I could have escaped Karen and Cindy. Maybe I could have had something useful to say to Liza.
I clattered down the stone steps, in my haste nearly falling into the plastic “tent” around the asbestos removal site. Jake was hanging the attendance slip on the door for the office monitor to pick up when I staggered through the doorway. He frowned, watching me. I ignored him. Laugh all you want, bucko, I thought, knowing that my face looked like a real sight.
Instead Jake took a pen out of his shirt pocket, wrote something on the attendance slip, then hung it back up. I could see the slip from my chair: “Absent: 0 Tardy: 0.” I hated that he felt sorry for me. Yet at the same time I wanted him to look at me again and see my pain.
Except I’d been looking at him in a few days and seeing his pain, if this tornado came to pass.
Times like this, I wish I had an off switch for my brain.
Miss Wisp was having us diagram sentences, writing the parsing up on the little blackboard in the front. Today was a bad day for chalk because it kept breaking into tiny pieces every time she’d try to draw a line.
About then, Roxy drifted into the room. She leaned over me and squinted at the parsed sentence on my paper. “That’s a direct object, not a predicate,” she said.
I parsed a sentence especially for her: Nice of you to show up.
Or I started parsing the sentence, but then couldn’t figure out where to put most of it.
“The subject and verb are understood in that sentence, so you’d write ‘It was’ on the main line, each in parentheses,” she said.
I scowled. What a show-off! I wrote, Karen and Cindy put me in the bathroom trash can upside down. Sorry you missed all the fun.
“Oh crap! No kidding?”
Like I’d joke about something like that. I felt my face crumple as I wrote. Where were you?
“I was looking around the junior high to see if I could find the other two who were … you know.” She made a ghosty shrug.
Well, I met one of them. I wrote.
She helped me out of the trash can. But I didn’t know what to say to her.
Roxy whistled softly. “Well, shoot. I had no idea you two were going to cross paths first.”
I thought, Maybe I didn’t want to cross paths with her this way at all!
Then I sighed. I hoped Roxy would feel guilty for the rest of the day for leaving me alone.
I finished my sentences, with Roxy explaining stuff the whole while even though I knew how to do them. Then I wrote, Did you see the other guy?
She looked sad. “Yeah ….”
And I know Roxy was waiting for me to ask who she saw and other stuff, but I didn’t want to do sad any more this afternoon. I didn’t want to do sad, or angry, or helpless, or any of that stupid stuff. So I nodded and pretended to be enraptured by Miss Wisp explaining the subjunctive mood or whatever.
After a little while, Roxy huffed, like my mom. “Yeah, I’d forgotten about that aspect of my personality,” she muttered, and I saw her drift toward the back of the room, toward where Jake sat.
What? What aspect of my personality was she complaining about? Just because I didn’t ask? Give me a break, I’ve already had a lousy afternoon.
June 25, 1909. Norton, Kansas. F-scale designation unknown.
“Everything was still as death,” Keller said of the tornado. “There was a strong gassy odor, and I could hardly breathe.” A screaming and hissing sound emanated from funnel’s tail. A circular opening at the center appeared to be as large as one hundred feet in diameter. He estimated the height at one-half mile. “The walls of this opening were rotating clouds,” Keller recalled, “and the hole was brilliantly lighted with the constant flashes of lightning which zigzagged from side to side.”
Miss Wisp wrapped up the class before the bell rang. At last! I got all my stuff together for the dash to the bus and Roxy drifted back to me, switching into hummingbird form so she could dodge the upcoming rampage. “I would strongly suggest that you walk with Jake today to the busses.”
I shook my head and gave her a Whaaaaat? look.
“Walk with Jake to the bus.”
I mouthed No!
“Oh yes you will. You want to save this guy or not? Go tell him thanks for not counting you tardy.”
Roxy! I’m really not interested in remembering why he had to count me tardy! Being dumped headfirst into a trash can, even if it was a very soft trash can, is not something I want to go over again!
“And also,” she added, “the paper he was working on in the back? It’s about time travel.”
The nice thing about having a ghost is being privy to all this information. Before Roxy made her revelation I didn’t want to approach Jake. Now I couldn’t wait for the bell to ring. Jake and I obviously had an interest in common!
The bell rang, and students erupted from their seats. I did too. But suddenly Roxy became a person again and she was standing right in front of me. “I really don’t want to get zapped by touching you,” she said, “but I’m willing to risk it. Go talk to Jake. And there he is.” She flashed into hummingbird shape again.
Jake was striding out the door, carrying his books at his side. I fell in beside him to get away from Roxy, who was really trailing me. “Talk to him,” she said, humming in at my right shoulder, driving me toward him.
“Geez, cut it out,” I said, cringing from her right toward Jake, then cringing on my left from him. There was no way on earth that I would allow myself to touch a boy! Not even if a crazed hummingbird armed with electricity made me!
“Would you watch where you’re going?” Jake said as we went through the big doors into the glare of the afternoon sun in a crowd of students, because I was nearly leaning on him as I tried to escape Roxy’s wrath.
“Sorry, I’m being attacked by a crazy bug,” I complained. I wasn’t really wanting to keep up with him because he sure sounded mad. “Thanks for not counting me tardy today.” And then, knowing I sounded like an idiot, I blathered, “Do you think people could travel through time?”
Jake gave me this funny look, like I’d jumped out from behind a bush at him wearing a clown wig. “Why are you asking me?”
I cringed. “Uh, I heard somebody say you knew about time travel.” He kept staring. My sentence trailed off into a mumble, and the tips of my ears burned. “But, uh, never mind, bye!” I started off.
“Wait a minute,” Jake said, keeping up with me. “You can’t say something interesting like that and walk off.”
My heart jumped in this odd happy way, and I instantly slowed. “So is it possible? Time travel I mean.”
But he showed me some mercy. “Doesn’t everybody want to travel back to the past and see what things used to be like?”
Boy, he had that right. “So if somebody came back from the future, do you think things could be changed?” I asked.
“No. People don’t have that kind of power. Everything has been preordained.”
“Everything has been what?”
“You know … already decided. Fate controls us. The only real choice we have is to follow.”
“Like hell we do!” said Roxy.
“Are you laughing at fate?” Jake asked.
“Um … No. No, fate is not the boss of me.”
“What makes you say that? By the way, if you take the bus, you’d better start walking that way.”
“I’ll walk with you.” My face got red again when he said that, but he started walking and I followed.
NOTE TO SELF: What Jake is saying, and what Zanny is saying, means something more to each of them. The talk is all metaphorical. These are their two worldviews, and these worldviews – how each of them see the world – are also things that are central to their characters. So let’s write something that works in this way!
Jake and I headed down the hill toward my bus. “So why do you think you can control fate? Are you bigger than the universe or something?”
“I don’t need to be bigger than the universe,” I said scornfully. “But I’m not a stupid puppet.” I started walking faster because my bus was down at the bottom of the hill and was always the first to leave.
Jake kept up. “But listen to this. Everyone says that God knows everything, right? This means that he knows everything that happens to you and me. Right? Therefore, our future has already happened to us, because He already knows what’s going to happen. God, being all-powerful, controls everything. So that’s fate. We can’t escape what’s going to happen to us.”
I sputtered. “No way! That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard! I don’t care if God thinks this through a hundred million zillion times! God ain’t me! I decide what I do!”
“Whoa, calm down,” Jake laughed. “It’s only a theory.”
“But the past can change,” I said desperately. “It’s got to change. What if it were true? What if people were going to die, and you knew it? You’ve got to be able to change it.”
“No,” said Jake, laughing. “Not a chance.”
Now that made me go a little nuts. I grabbed his arm before I knew what I was doing, and I never ever ever grabbed other people, or touched them, or hugged them. “No,” I said, shaking his arm a little. “No. The universe can’t treat you like that. You’ve got to decide. You’re the one who makes the choices. And if that means fighting the universe, then fight it for goodness’ sake. But you can’t stand here and have fate lead you to your doom.”
HOLY COW WHAT THE HECK DID I JUST SAY.
I stood there with my mouth open. Jake removed his arm from my hand. “Do you always get this worked up about philosophical arguments?”
“Um ….” And suddenly, down at the bottom of the hill, my bus start to move. “My bus!” I squalled.
I tore off like a track star. I was one of the fastest kids in my elementary school, which was good. But as I flew down the hill at a thousand miles an hour, I hoped Jake was looking after me and admiring my speed. I made the bus before it pulled out into the street. I took a millisecond to glance up the hill in Jake’s direction, hoping he could see me, before I hopped aboard.
I flopped down in my bus seat, out of breath. A little hummingbird flew in my open window. “Good job,” she said.
A little flurry of happiness winged through my heart. “Thanks,” I whispered back.
“Do you have Jake’s ee mail address? Maybe you can continue the conversation on line.”
“Do I have what?”
There was a little pause. “Awkwaaaard,” Roxy sang in a little voice, and flew out the window, probably so I wouldn’t bother her with questions.
I pulled out my notebook and wrote down “Ee mail” and “On line” for future reference. I imagined Jake and I continuing our conversation as we balanced on a chalk line on the sidewalk. Then I shrugged and started writing down the conversation I’d had with Jake – also for future reference.
As far as I was concerned, fate could jump in the lake.
On the bus, my cousins were engaged in Booger Wars, so I couldn’t gripe at Roxy the way I wanted to. My cousins would sneak from one seat to the other when the bus driver wasn’t looking in his rear-view mirror and they’d ambush each other by flicking boogers. I had to keep sharp in order to stay out of the crossfire. Roxy took refuge on top of the radio speaker in the front of the bus and changed into a field mouse. She sang along to all the ‘60’s music on WHB like “Runaround Sue” and “Do Ron Ron,” with her little mouse nose in the air and a surprisingly full voice for a mouse, which actually annoyed me more. Dang singing mice.
Finally our stop came up, and the bus driver wouldn’t let my cousins off the bus until he chewed them out and told them they’d be written up the next time he caught them moving from seat to seat. And then we went out, and I was relieved that the Booger Wars were over.
Roxy changed back into herself the way she did when there was nobody around to crash into. “You would have thought that something that monumental would have stayed in my memory,” she joked.
Blah blah blah, I thought.
The sky was grey-white with clouds, and a breeze was picking up like it was going to storm, seething through the silver maples so the white bottoms of their leaves flashed. The temperature had dropped since I had left school, and I rubbed the goosebumps on my arms and wished that I had brought a sweater.
I dropped my school stuff off at home, Roxy trailing along behind me. “You going to Grandpa Carl’s tonight?”
I very pointedly picked up the notebook that Roxy had insisted I buy for this very purpose and went past her out the door, my nose in the air.
Still, I couldn’t stay grumpy when I was going to see Grandpa, especially since he was going to open up the big steamer trunk tonight and show me what was inside.
Grandpa sat in the armchair, an AM radio at his elbow on the end table, playing country music on KFEQ. It was a song I liked, but then they switched to a farm report and started talking about the mercantile exchange. Boring! “Hi grandpa,” I said.
“You know, remembering your grandpa 20 years down the road, and then seeing him, real, right in front of you – there’s no comparison,” Roxy said softly.
Grandpa was unshaven, with gray stubble on his face, and he had a little bit of tomato sauce dried onto a spot on his chin. All the same I had a little bit of an idea what she meant. “Are you ready to read today?” I asked him.
“Yes, yes.” He stretched an arm across the table, cautiously aiming his hand toward the knob on the side of the radio, and slowly clicked it off. “Did you have a good day at school today?”
“Oh, it was interesting as usual.”
I got out the Reader’s Digest and started reading to him. Roxy lay on the old saggy couch, listening to me read. About halfway through, the wind really started to pick up, and I could hear a rising hiss in the trees outside. By the time I finished up, a roll of thunder sounded from the north. Roxy looked up at the noise and smiled. “That’s such a good sound.”
I didn’t think so! I HATED thunderstorms!
Grandpa took hold of the armrests and pushed himself to his feet. “You did good,” he said in his soft, raspy voice. “Would you like a cookie?”
“I always like a cookie.” I went to the window and moved the sheer curtain aside. Above the old cedar tree that lashed this way and that, gray clouds made strange lumps and textures in the restless sky. “Grandpa, is there going to be a thunderstorm tonight?” He was already shuffling into the kitchen. I hurried to follow him, because I was scared to stay alone in a room during a thunderstorm.
“It’s been in the forecast,” he said, switching on the kitchen radio, but they were playing a commercial for auto repair. I got a fig newton out of the open package Grandpa kept on his table and nervously nibbled on it. Just then, the announcer came on and said that these counties were under a severe thunderstorm watch, which meant conditions were favorable for thunderstorm, high winds, and dangerous lightning. Andrew County was at the top of the list, followed by all the counties in northwest Missouri and a few in northeast Kansas. The county to our north was under a severe thunderstorm warning and a tornado watch, and the storm was heading our way.
“You better get home. You don’t want to be rained on,” Grandpa said.
“Don’t go yet!” said Roxy. “You have time. Look in the trunk first.”
I gave her a wide-eyed, incredulous look. What the heck was she thinking!
“Please,” Roxy said. “Do it.”
I wanted to huff, but I couldn’t do that in front of Grandpa. I gave Roxy a look, then said, “Can we look at the trunk before … before I go home?” I kept forgetting to say I instead of we.
“Sure you can. I’m surprised you’re not hiding under the couch.” Grandpa shuffled into the sea-green bedroom, and I followed, interested despite my nervousness at the storm. An old dresser, almost black with age, stood in the corner with a mirror over it. The mirror wasn’t exactly flat so the reflected room had odd wavers in it. Underneath the lace curtained window was a steamer trunk. The metal fittings were worn and flecked with brown, and the leather on its side was cracked. Grandpa opened the lock and pushed up the lid so it blocked the window’s light. The inside of the lid was papered with old newspapers, and the scent of old paper and cloth rose to meet me. As the lid came up, a double set of trays rose up, packed with letters, and I wondered which letters were from Grandma Ruby to Carl, and how many there were. Below the trays were tiny white gowns for babies, old newspapers, several pairs of baby booties, stacks of photographs, an old glitter-gold purse, and some pipes. The photograph on top of the stack featured a sepia family on their front porch. The woman, who wore long skirts and had her hair twisted up, farm-girl style, gave the camera the same wry smile that Roxy did.
“Who’s that?” I asked, picking up the picture.
Grandpa took it and held it close to his face, looking through his bifocals. “That’s your great-great grandma Susie and your great-great grandpa John. There’s my Ruby there.” Grandpa pointed at a little girl on the porch with her hair in two braids. The little girl looked about old enough to be in second grade, and she was giving the camera a jaded look, as if she were holding still to please her mom, but her mind was on running off and playing or something. I couldn’t get my mind around this little girl being my great-grandma Ruby, who had died a couple of years ago. And here she was, looking about my little brother’s age. It was crazy.
“What was Ruby like when she was little?” I asked.
Grandpa looked some more at the picture. “Her mama Susie died a few years after this picture was taken. John married a new lady, Lula, who made Ruby do the work around the house. Ruby was nine years old and they made her do the dishes. She had to watch the children – and make them mind! One time John and Lula went to Topeka and Ruby had to do the chores and watch the kids. Well, those kids of Lula’s climbed up on the roof of the barn and there wasn’t nothing on earth Ruby could do to make those kids come down. Ruby caught it when they got home – as if it was her fault.”
“That was mean,” I said.
“Well, we got married in 1912. She was the most patient, most generous soul,” Grandpa said. “During the ‘30’s, hoboes came through town on the trains, and if they asked her for food she’d give it. One day, a hobo came through. We didn’t have much in the house. She fixed him a couple of eggs and an onion. He gave her all this rude talk because he wanted something better. She took the plate back and came out with the shotgun. She said, ‘I’ll have you know this place ain’t no restaurant.’”
I grinned. She sounded like my kind of gal.
Grandpa kept looking at her picture. “We were married 65 years when she died. We’d known each other all our lives, ever since she was a little girl at school, running around with her hanky in her hand. Then she grew up into a beautiful wife, and it didn’t matter what she put her hand to but she could do it. I could stretch out my hand any time – like this – and she was always there to take it. We knew each other for near 75 years,” he told me. He looked again at her picture, then gave it to me.
To my shock, Roxy’s eyes were teary. “And then when Ruby died, that was the first time in 75 years Grandpa had been truly alone. Oh, Zanny, do give him a hug. I hate being a ghost!”
I was shy of giving him a hug, but she was so upset that I did. Grandpa hugged me too, and we patted each others’ backs, pat pat pat.
A flash of white light sliced through the window and thunder crashed and shook the house. I shrieked and just about dived under the bed.
Then the back door slammed and I shrieked again, thinking of that hobo.
“Dad? Is that one of the girls?” a woman called.
“Oh, it’s Grandma Eileen!” Roxy said.
I clapped a hand over my heart, playacting for Grandpa. “Whew!”
Grandpa smiled and patted me on the back. “Zanny came over,” he called, shuffling back into the kitchen. “She wanted to look at the old trunk.”
Grandma Eileen came into the kitchen from the mudroom, taking off her rain bonnet from her black hair. She’d put on her shoes and a jacket, both of which were speckled with raindrops. Grandpa Carl was her dad, and she’d walk over to fix his lunch and dinner.
I showed her the picture. “It’s Great-Great Grandma Suzie and Great-grandma Ruby — your mom,” I added, and it was weird to look at that little girl and think of her as my grandma’s mom. “Grandpa said I could look at it tonight.”
Grandma Eileen looked at it through her glasses. “Oh, but you don’t want to get it wet. You better leave it here.”
“I’ll put it in my notebook.” I put it in there, stuffed the notebook under my shirt, and clutched it to my chest. “See?”
“Well, you be careful with it. Run home as fast as you can. We’re going to have a bad storm tonight.” She set a platter on the table and lifted off the foil: fried chicken, greens, beets, and hot bread, the rolls Grandma made from the sourdough starter she kept in the fridge. The food was still hot. “Now, sit down, Dad, and I’ll get you the butter for the bread.”
Roxy wanted to watch her get Grandpa’s food together, but I hurried through the mudroom and she followed. “Dang it!” Roxy cried. “I wish I could talk to Grandpa or give him a hug. But no! I am a ghost! A lonely ghost surrounded by the people I love more than anything in the world, and they all look so … alive!” She shot out of the door and vanished.
Shocked, I ran outside after her, startling the old tom cat on the back porch. Rain pattered all around the porch, and a big black line of clouds were marching up from the south while the wind blew from the north. When the wind is blowing toward a storm, that generally means the storm is coming your way. “Roxy!” I called, but no one answered. Well, if she wanted to be that way, then fine. I tucked the notebook tight against my chest to keep the picture safe and ran like crazy across Aunt Olga’s backyard, across the bridge on the side of the hill (a huge clap of thunder smacked the air and I shrieked), down Grandpa Vance’s driveway (the rain suddenly poured down in a torrent), and into the back door of my house, drenched. I kicked off my shoes, dried off in the bathroom, and ran upstairs. The notebook was dry, and the picture inside was safe.
I put the picture up in my mirror on my desk and tried imitating Susie’s wry look. Then I tried imitating little Ruby’s resigned gaze. I matched that look better. I looked at Ruby’s little dress and scuffed, high-topped button boots.
A huge shock of lightning flashed, and thunder roared and shook the house. With a squeak I was out of my chair, down the stairs, and in the living room in nothing flat. Mom and Dad and Ray were watching TV. Mom and Ray sat on the couch with a big bowl of buttered popcorn between them, and Ray’s long legs stretched to the coffee table, feet in tube socks. Dad sat in the armchair with his orange glass of Pepsi fizzing on the end table next to him.
Ray threw a piece of popcorn at me. “Hey, squirt. There’s a storm outside.”
“Is there a tornado warning?” I asked. All unthinking, I flicked the popcorn back at my brother.
“Calm down, it’s only a rainstorm,” Mom told me the way she always did, her eyes still on the screen.
I slumped into the beanbag chair. They were watching channel 5, but that wouldn’t have any helpful weather stuff because it was out of Kansas City, an hour away. “Switch it to channel 2,” I said. “Maybe they have the weather on there.”
“Zanny, we’re watching our show. Go listen to the radio if you’re so worried.”
Roxy showed up, squinting at the TV. “Oh, that’s right, they don’t have the weather crawl at the bottom of the screen.”
“Don’t have the weather what?”
“Zanny, you can’t become popular like me if you talk to yourself,” Ray told me.
Roxy rolled her eyes.
“Don’t worry about the weather,” Mom said. “We’re not going to get a tornado.”
“We had a tornado in ’81. Two years ago.”
“It was in Savannah, and it didn’t damage anything.”
“It spun a truck around in front of the Dairy Queen.”
Ray jumped in. “That’s not damage, that’s just fun,” he said, crunching popcorn in his mouth.
“Uh-huh,” Roxy said, but it was a ghost of her usual snappy way.
A commercial came on, so I leaned over to the TV and switched to channel 2, which was out of St. Joe, but all they had was a Wendy’s commercial where the old lady was going, “Where’s the beef!”
“Zanny, if you’re that worried, switch it back and go listen to the radio,” Mom said.
I clicked the TV back to channel 5 and stormed off. I ran upstairs as fast as I could, grabbed my transistor radio, and ran back down before the winds could take the roof off or something. I hid out behind the couch and turned on KFEQ, but they were playing country music like it was no big deal. Finally I gave up and huddled on the couch between Mom and Ray and snitched their popcorn.
But I was still in a rotten mood, watching the rain sluice the windows. Nobody in Missouri took a thunderstorm seriously. They didn’t try to be safe in a tornado. If there had been an actual tornado, the people would all run outside to see if they could spot it instead of running down to the dang cellar the way they were supposed to. So how in the world was I going to get everyone at the spaghetti supper to run downstairs when the tornado showed up? They’d probably run out the front door saying, “Where’s it at?”
Roxy looked at Mom and Ray, but she’d look at Dad the most. They were watching The A-Team, which was kind of a dumb show, though I liked Mr. T with his Mohawk and his gold chains. The show also had lots of explosions, which was nice. I kept looking at Roxy when the people on TV said something corny, but she was pretty quiet, which for her was pretty remarkable.
Tonight the show got on my nerves, and my nerves were jangly from the dang storm. They were also jangly due to a new realization: I was going to be in a building that was going to be hit with an actual thunderstorm and worse, an actual tornado that was going to tear down a wall and kill people.
A real tornado was unpredictable. That’s what people really didn’t think about, especially in this area, where sometimes you could have severe thunderstorms for three or four nights in a row, and where you’d have one or two tornadoes in the area that would tear into silos and machine sheds, or blow over a couple of mobile homes, or flatten some big old trees.
But that’s the thing about a tornado: You don’t know when it’s going to drop out of the sky; you don’t know where it’s going to hit. You could be driving down the road when it picks up your car and throws it. You could be sleeping in your bed when it slams your roof down on you. You could be riding your bike when it sweeps you into the air, shoots you with a million debris bullets, then drops you.
All my bad dreams are tornado dreams. I’ve started crying with fear if we’re driving down the road and the sky turns that sickly green-black that signals a tornado and Mom refuses to stop and take shelter. Sometimes I’ll shriek if the weather alert shows up on channel 5 – when the screen goes red with the black letters SEVERE WEATHER ALERT and they start playing some crazy xylophone music. It would help if they showed a pretty screen with flowers and played soothing music instead of trying to make the announcement strike fear into your heart.
Finally the rain faded and stopped, and the wind calmed down. Only then did I go back upstairs and open up the window. It had cooled down. Rivulets rushed down the hilly driveway from my uncle’s house, while Tinker the cat was mincing up the sidewalk toward Grandma and Grandpa’s house, saying, “Meow? Meow? Meow?”
Roxy drifted to the window and watched the little calico cat but didn’t say anything.
I tried to be joking. “So what’s up with you?”
Roxy’s voice was quiet. “I’ve been away from my girl and my husband for a whole day and I can’t go tell them I’m okay and they must be frantic. I hate that!”
“Look, I’m sorry too, but I’m going a little nuts right now. At home, I could hug my family, I could pet my dog, or cat, or chickens. Here, I can’t even touch a little mouse without getting zapped. If I hug my grandpa, who I haven’t seen for years and years, I’ll zap myself and him. I’m seeing all these people who I miss desperately and I can’t give them a big hug and I can’t talk to them. You are the only person I can talk to.”
I swallowed. This was getting to be way too much.
“If I want to distract myself,” Roxy continued, “I can’t write, or turn the dial on the radio, or pick up a book. I must say I have been exploring all the nooks and crannies of this old place, and I’m finding things that I’ve so completely forgotten – and a ton of things that I missed seeing in the first place that I wish I’d seen before. Really, I shouldn’t complain. I’m seeing people I knew I would never see again, and now here they are, and here I am, for what it’s worth. And maybe I’m being given a second chance, which nobody gets, though I sure can think of a lot of people who deserve it more than I do. I get to look back at all the time I squandered because I didn’t want to look at faces, or listen to the stories of the ones I’ve loved, and now in my time those faces and those stories are gone forever because nobody listened and nobody wrote them down.”
I started to cry. I felt like I was suddenly put out to sea in an unknown ocean in a leaky boat. “Stop! I get it, okay? Just stop.”
“I said stop!” I grabbed a Kleenex and honked my nose. “Geez, come on, I’m only a kid you know. Why don’t you go drift around somewhere and do something else besides nag at me and tell me that I’m not doing enough? Because guess what, I … care about these people too.”
Roxy was quiet, and I expected her to say, What, isn’t the word “love” in your vocabulary? But she didn’t. “Well. I guess I could study the habits of the western screech owl.”
“That sounds great. Just go,” I said.
She looked at me a moment longer. “Okay. See ya.” Roxy turned into a hummingbird, shut her eyes, and buzzed outside, passing through the screen. She stopped about halfway over the roof of the mudroom. “Did I get through?” she asked.
“Yeah. You can open your eyes now.”
She hummed away and was gone.
I had an hour left before my 9 p.m. bedtime. I opened up the toybox and took out my stuffed animals again. I’d named every one of them. I piled them up all over my legs and put my arm around my Raggedy Ann doll that Grandma had made for me, and then I read the stories I wrote when I was little. Things were so much simpler when I was a little kid. I had already forgotten so much of when I was little, and it made me sad. I read a reference to the stories I’d written about Whistler the dog and I couldn’t even remember what those stories were about.
When I was a little kid, I could wander through the forest and pastures any old time I wanted to and I didn’t have homework or other things to worry about. On snow days I’d go sled riding, then go to Grandma Eileen’s house with my cousins and she’d make Malt-O-Meal, and I’d use the sugar to make a smiley face on my cereal. Then we’d pour evaporated milk on it and stir it up and eat it. I could still smell the nutty chocolate scent of the cereal and see the kitchen, lit only by the light of the snowy morning outside, and snow fell in big clumps against the window, and my hands were wet and cold from my soggy mittens but warmed up when I wrapped them around my bowl.
Safe and warm.
My whole world was like that. My home was safe. My whole town was safe. How can you be in danger when you’re surrounded by grandparents and cousin and aunts and uncles? And those who weren’t related to me were my customers on the paper route, so I’d go to their houses every month or so to get their money, and they’d usually talk my ear off and give me candy too, and treat me as nicely as my relatives did. There were about two or three people we avoided for various reasons, but I was always wary, and I could always duck into one of my relatives’ houses if I needed to, or cut across their backyards. But I never needed to. The whole town watched out for us. We watched out for each other.
I started to nod off over my stories. Bedtime. I climbed out from under my stuffed animals, put on my pajamas, shut off the light, and crawled into bed. I brought Raggedy Ann with me. I tucked her in, gave her a kiss, and went to sleep, wishing I could go back in time and be in grade school again.
June 12, 1881. Hopkins, Missouri.
The four strands of the tornado started about 3 p.m. about six miles west of Hopkins near the Lone Elm Schoolhouse. One of the strands demolished the schoolhouse, and then the four strands united into one tornado.
The house of Zach Davidson, with Zach, his wife, their two sons, and hired man, was blown 50 meters across a ravine. They were miraculously unhurt. The tornado blew apart his stable and carried two horses a quarter of mile although both survived. The tornado then crossed the 102 River and destroyed McMackin Mill, then hit the house of James Young, throwing him and his wife about 50 yards from the house and killing them.
The next morning, I was doing the paper route. Cricket walked at my side with Brownie limping along with us and looking worried as usual. I was coming out of great-grandpa Ben’s house (I always left the newspaper on his breakfast table where he could find it when he woke up) and had shut the screen door behind me. That’s when I saw, in the tree growing out of the old cellar, a screech owl sitting on a lower branch and glaring at me with big yellow eyes.
Which actually wasn’t a scary sight since this screech owl was about the size of two apples stacked on one another. I could have held him in my hand. I had never seen a screech owl, though I often heard their whinnying calls on early winter mornings when the stars were out. The owl was gray with darker lines across his chest, and had small ear tufts. I was astonished, and at the same time I wanted to pick the owl up and cuddle it.
The owl swung its head around in a circle, then a figure eight, its great eyes staring the whole while at me.
“Hey owl,” I said softly.
“Hey is for horses,” said the owl, and burped, its big eyes bugging out.
“Roxy!” I squawked.
“Whoo, I thought that was a food pellet.” She stretched her neck and clacked her beak.
“You fooled me! I thought you were a real owl.”
“Didn’t mean to fool you. I guess my ghosty skills are improving. Also I got a lot of owl observation in last night.” Roxy’s feathers slowly rose and rose until she was poofy, and then she shook herself out. Ghostly dust and feathers flew. Then she settled to her normal size. “Owls are fun,” she concluded. “Anyway … sorry about last night.”
I wasn’t really used to having people apologize to me. At home we didn’t apologize; we’d ignore the problem and after a while it went away. “Um – me too.”
“Well, I should have thought about how all that might have affected you before I started talking. This whole ghosty thing was really starting to get to me last night, and I’m sorry you got all wrapped up in this.”
I didn’t know what else to say, except that it was a relief to hear her say it. “Okay. Thanks.”
Cricket was watching the owl suspiciously. Roxy cocked her head. “Aw, Cricket, don’t be scared of me. I won’t hurt you.”
Cricket’s tail stirred, and she whined.
Roxy fluttered her wings. “Hey, you know me! I love you too, you crazy old dog.” She swiveled her feathery head to me and snapped her beak twice as if to get my attention. “Come on, let’s get this paper route done. Then we’ll go to school and totally stalk Jake!” She flew out of the tree and glided toward Uncle Roger’s house, the last on the route.
“Hey, I am not going to be a weirdo stalker,” I said, running after her with the dogs at my heels.
“Right!” said Roxy as she swooped into the tulip magnolia tree. “Because Jake’s first hour class is in Miss Garland’s room. Surely you’re not going to do anything with [_that _]information, are you?”
When I got to school I headed toward Miss Garland’s room. I didn’t feel like sitting around in homeroom until the bell rang, anyway. And who knew, maybe there were benefits to being a weirdo stalker. Not that I was one, of course.
Lo and behold, I hit the jackpot. Jake was halfway up the stairs with some other guys, and they were laughing loudly. I followed, giggling to myself. I couldn’t believe I was trailing him.
I followed Jake up the stairs, then nonchalantly got a drink at the little bitty water fountain, watching him from the corner of my eye as he and his friends walked into Miss Garland’s room. I had Literature in there next hour. If I ran up the stairs, I could catch him as he left class, though for what reason I couldn’t say. Perfect! I raced down the stone steps and skidded through the door of my class as the bell rang.
When the bell rang again for second hour, up I went to Miss Garland’s class, taking the stairs two at a time. I rounded the corner on the landing and slammed right into a guy who was innocently unaware of self-launched missiles like me. I knocked him backwards. His head hit against the stair railing and his glasses went flying.
“Oh, man! I’m so sorry!” I yelped as he sat abruptly on one of the steps.
“That’s okay.” He gave his head a shake. “I didn’t need this brain anyway. God, girl, slow down next time.” He took the railing and pulled himself up.
I went to pick up the guy’s glasses but another hand beat me to it: Jake’s. I jumped back like I’d nearly touched a rattlesnake.
“Ha. Scared you, didn’t I?” Jake said.
“Well, yes you did,” I snapped, annoyed at my stupid reaction.
Jake went back to ignoring me. “Buck, you all right?” he said, handing him the glasses.
“I’m fine.” Buck put on his glasses and ran both hands through his curly red hair to get it out of his face.
“I’m sorry!” I wanted to dust off Buck, but I didn’t want to touch a boy, so I fluttered my hands like I could dust Buck off from a distance.
“Don’t worry about it,” Buck said. “Take it easy next time.”
“Yes sir, I will!” I said, one of my Dad’s stock phrases. That got another puzzled look from Jake, but Buck clapped me on the shoulder as he passed. For some reason I felt like I’d been blessed, getting that friendly touch right in front of Jake. But remembering Jake’s puzzled eyes gave me an odd feeling, like I wanted him to keep giving me puzzled looks forever, and it would be the nicest thing.
But the thought made me feel uncomfortable, so I dumped it out of my mind, the way I dumped all those thoughts I didn’t want to think about.
I went on to science, which could have been more exciting. I sank onto my desk as Miss Millimeter (actually Mrs. Miller) went picking around a diagram of a cell on the board with her chalk.
What if I told Jake about the big tornado?
Yeah, right! Telling him that would be like whanging him in the head with a bowling ball: It didn’t matter if I hit him gently, he’d say, “What did you do THAT for?” and avoid me for the rest of my days. Or for the rest of his.
Last hour was English. Today was story day, my favorite! I had my story ready to go – some trifle about a lion who wanted a snack.
But that story wouldn’t get Jake’s attention, I thought.
And there went my heart pounding again.
I needed to write a different story, and fast. I had three class periods to write it. I could even revise it in English while other people read their stories. I generally volunteered to go first on story day, but this time I wouldn’t raise my hand so I’d have a little extra time to revise. Miss Wisp wouldn’t know what to think. She’d probably faint or something. That would get Jake’s attention for sure.
Miss Millimeter was inching around the diagram of the cell on the chalkboard. Mitochondria. Endoplastic reticulatum or whatever it was.
I turned a new page in my notebook. I didn’t even know what I would write. But I found that if I dived in and started writing nonsense, I generally ended up getting a piece of a story started. Once I had a little piece of story to guide myself by, I could make it to the end all right. And if that story bit was really dumb, I would try another. Story bits tended to be disposable like Kleenex, which helped.
I dived in and had a couple of false starts before my pen finally got going.
Once there was a guy who didn’t know what the future held. But the girl did. Once there was a hummingbird named
Once there was a silly girl named Kat. She liked to wonder what she’d be like in the future. She wondered so hard that one day a window suddenly opened up in front of her. A woman on the other side walked to the window. It was the person Kat was going to be in the future! So the young girl pulled her older self through. And now her older self was stuck!
Kat’s older self’s name was Katherine. Kat was happy to meet her older self. But Katherine also drove her nuts! Katherine was kind of bossy and nagged like Kat’s mom, until Kat wanted to run away screaming.
[_But one day when they were in class, the older Katherine saw somebody and went pale as a ghost. “Oh, no,” she said. “Something bad’s going to happen to her.” Katherine pointed at a girl with beautiful blonde hair. _]
“What’s going to happen?” Kat said.
I couldn’t write it.
“She’s going to get hurt. In a car accident. Next week.”
Kat had thought that meeting her older self would be fun, but this was turning out to be a wreck. She went and tried to tell the girl what would happen. The girl ran away. Kat tried again. The girl dumped spaghetti on her head. But then the day of the accident, after school, Kat saw the girl waiting for her mom to pick her up. Kat talked to the girl and made her late, and her mom left 15 minutes late. Kat crossed her fingers and her toes. But the next day, the newspaper came out. Nothing had happened! Kat was happy. No news really was good news!
I worked on the story during Science and a little bit during History. A little sea monster of worry swam around in my stomach, because the story was stupid as a box of rocks.
Roxy came by, now over her sulk, and read over my paper. “Ha! I am not a nag.” But she stayed in human form and pointed at things in my writing to proofread for and helped me revise while Mr. Durst went on and on about the angry Jacksonians who hated the bloated aristocracy. So when the bell rang for gym, I was done with the story.
Roxy changed into a hummingbird and zipped into the air above the students as everyone stampeded toward the door. “Hey, what happens to the older self at the end of the story?”
“I have no idea,” I said, heading out.
“Make her a multi-millionaire with a book contract,” she called.
I went to gym class and set my bookbag down on the bleachers while Roxy, still in hummingbird form, flew up to the high rafters of the gym to stir up the dust of ages past. I watched her zipping around up there between the dark crossbars and X’s of the rafters, her wings a blur, but since she was a ghost, she didn’t kick up a speck of dust or stir a single spiderweb. The unpainted, unadorned ceiling was so high up; the janitor didn’t even go up there because he had a huge pole with a basket at the end, and he could walk around on the gym floor and change the light bulbs.
I wondered how much of that dirt up there remained from when Mom and Dad went to school here in the ‘60’s. Maybe Dad sneezed in the gym and a little bit of his spit got stuck to a dust mote that floated slowly up and settled on one of those beams, and now a bit of my dad was clear up there, as well as the parents and grandparents of the kids in this school right now. Dust is a heck of a way to measure time, when you think about it.
Just about then, Karen and Cindy sidled up behind me and started talking really loudly, as if they’d both left their hearing aids at home.
“I heard that there’s this girl who talks to imaginary people.”
“Yeah, except they’re not people, they’re actually squirrels and stuff. And she talks to them and makes faces at them.”
“Like, she talks to imaginary animals?”
“Yeah, and the animals talk back and everything. They give her dating advice.”
I turned around real slow and looked at them. They immediately cracked up laughing, like I was the punch line in their funny sitcom. Their laughter was that derisive hyena noise that’s not really so much laughter as it is the way that they like to let you know that you are their joke and they’ll take a moment to let you know how much they scorn you.
Roxy flew down from the ceiling. “Some people need a hobby.”
I told them that. They started laughing again.
I rolled my eyes and started down the bleachers. But when I got to the floor, they got on both sides of me and kept laughing as loudly as they could into both my ears. I didn’t speed up my walk. I walked slow. Karen was at my left ear and Cindy was at my right, and my ears were probably bleeding from all their laughing. But I wasn’t going to run. I kept walking at my even pace toward the teacher’s office, who tended to look the other way when Karen and Cindy were doing their thing. Let’s see if she’d notice now, I thought. All the girls were looking at me – or rather, at Karen and Cindy making idiots of themselves.
Roxy was zipping little angry circles over my head and around the heads of my tormenters. “No. Not through the bill,” she snapped, as if coming to a decision. “Through the hand.” Then Roxy’s human form in its green dress dropped out of her hummingbird form, jaw clenched, her hand outstretched. Roxy lunged as if pushing through her own resistance and grabbed Karen’s arm.
SNAP, loud as the crack of a whip. Roxy dropped to her knees as if she’d been shot, hunched over and clutching her hand. Karen jolted back, grabbing her arm. She wailed like a cat getting killed and she turned her blue eyes full on mine. Her eyes were wide and scared, and her wail turned into a garbled yell as she tried to speak but couldn’t, a cry for help.
I’d seen that look in Cricket’s eyes when she got hit by a car, and I’d held her and talked to her and calmed her down. Karen’s eyes were like Cricket’s. “It’s okay, calm down,” I said, holding my hands out to her. “Stop. Stop and breathe. The panic is hurting you worse. You need to breathe.”
Karen stopped screaming and took a breath. Then another. The ends of her peroxide-blonde hair were quivering, but she was breathing.
Tears prickled the back of my eyes. “Good. Now breathe and calm down. Where are you hurt?”
Karen’s eyes turned red-rimmed, but she could talk again, though her voice quavered. “What’d you do to me? You shocked me with something, didn’t you?”
“No. I don’t know what happened.” I lowered my hands. “I was trying to get to the teacher’s office. Do you need to go see the nurse?”
Karen hesitated. She still held her arm like it hurt terribly, but she seemed to have forgotten it temporarily. She was searching my face like she didn’t even know who I was.
Cindy suddenly jumped in, looking scared. “That stupid girl is lying. She zapped you with something but now she doesn’t want to get into trouble.”
Though Cindy was in a little way correct – technically, it was me who zapped her – her snarky comment still made me mad. “No, that’s wrong.”
But Karen slid right back into her old ways. “Shut UP,” she snapped, and then her red-rimmed eyes filled up and she suddenly ran to the bathroom.
“Pussy,” Cindy told me, and ran after Karen.
This was nuts. They started the whole thing and yet I was the one to blame. Well, too bad for them!
The other girls, who had suited up in their black shorts and their generic white T-shirts, gathered along the edges of the bleachers, staring without even trying to hide it.
I eased toward Roxy, who struggled as if a fish were eating her hand and she was trying to wrench it off. I wanted to run over there screaming because my older self, the only person in the world who cared for me, had something bad happen to her. But all the other girls were gawking at me with their mouths open.
“What’d you do to Karen?” one girl asked, curling her lip.
I raised my hands. “I don’t know. I was walking toward the teacher’s office so I could get rid of them.”
The teacher came out. “Get on the floor for your warm-ups.”
One of the students said, “Karen’s sick. She’s in the bathroom with Cindy.”
For some reason that got some snickers from some of the other students. “No!” said the student. “She got hurt. Because of her.” She pointed right at me. My stomach dropped like she’d opened a trap door under it.
The teacher gave me a dubious look, but said, “I’ll check on her later. Do your warm-ups!”
I didn’t hear anything about it for the rest of the hour. Karen got sent to the nurse’s office. But Roxy wasn’t well: She slowly drifted into a tight corner behind the bleachers and stayed there the rest of the hour, her back to us, and I couldn’t talk to her or anything because I was too far away. I tried to sneak away once during class, but the teacher yelled at me and I had to come back, face red. It was driving me nuts that Roxy was hurt. I felt so helpless.
When the first bell rang, I shot a glance at her. Roxy was facing outward now, her face a mess, but she waved me along. “I’m okay,” she said in a croaky voice.
I was so relieved I almost started to cry. Instead I looked at the ceiling and squished my eyes shut for a second, then I went to English class alone.
I’d been in English class for a little while, worrying and hardly hearing the other stories that people were reading, when Roxy finally drifted through the door in human form. “Sorry about that,” she said. “That zap took a lot out of me. I can’t change shapes or anything. I’ll be in the back, hanging out with Jake.”
I nodded, hardly daring to take my eyes off the student who was reading. But I wrote, Thanks for sticking up for me!!
“It’s about time somebody did,” Roxy said softly, and went to the back.
When that student was done reading, I volunteered to read next, and I actually grabbed both stories because I was on the verge of chickening out. “I have two stories and I don’t know which to read,” I explained. “One is about a lion looking for a snack, and the other is about a time-travel girl –“
“Time travel,” Jake said from the back of the room.
My face flushed bright red.
Miss Wisp smiled in her pretty way. “I defer my opinion to that of the king,” she said at Jake, bowing at her desk.
“Arrgh.” Jake waved her off.
So I read my time-travel story. I was trying not to think of Jake as I read it, but that wasn’t working so well, and thinking of Jake made me read with a nervous quaver that annoyed the oatmeal out of me.
I glanced at the back of the room when I’d finished. Roxy stood behind Jake, reading a paper that lay in front of him. Jake was watching me. Roxy looked up and smiled at me and nodded.
I sat down, relieved that she finally looked better. She came up beside my desk. “Now, when the bell rings, go get him.”
I didn’t like the way she said that but I nodded. And this time, when the bell rang, I waited for Jake to meet me at the door.
[* Maybe she asks why he puts himself out there. Doesn’t it bother you to have all those people be mad at you? Jake: who cares about what they think? I’m a lightning rod! Let them get mad, I don’t care. Zanny: Eeek! *becomes a little mouse* *]
“You again,” Jake said, but he sounded like he didn’t mind. We headed out into the mad mob of students all crushing themselves toward the doors to the outside world. “What happened to the older gal at the end of your story?” he said. “She vanished like she didn’t even matter.”
On some deep level, those words made me squirm. Sometimes Roxy didn’t even seem real to me, like I was making her up. But I said, “I don’t know what happens to her.”
“She ought to move to a tropical island somewhere where she can put her feet up and relax. But that girl that Kat was trying to save in the story – Kat didn’t save her after all. If she doesn’t die in a car wreck on that day, she will soon enough.”
“What?!” I squawked as we stepped out into the sun.
“If she’s supposed to be in a car wreck, then she’s going to be, even if it gets delayed for a while. That’s how the whole thing works. When your number is up, Fate points to you and boom, you’re done.”
“Uh-uh. I’m still not buying the whole ‘fate’ thing, and in fact I am against it,” I told him.
“What’s your proof?” Jake said, smirking.
“I don’t need to prove something is stupid when it’s obviously dumb.”
Jake rolled his eyes. “Okay, if you don’t have proof, then what’s your theory?”
“What if God isn’t all-knowing and all-powerful? What if he has like a secretarial staff so He can get all his stuff done? What if He doesn’t know the future either?”
“But the Bible says that He has numbered the very hairs on your head,” Jake said. “Sounds like he’s all-knowing to me.” But his voice was so sarcastic. It was so weird to hear somebody talking about God that way.
But I thought, Why am I trying to use logic stuff to persuade him? Especially when the time-travel thing is actually happening to me! “Maybe that’s what it says in the Bible, but it’s wrong, and you’re wrong.”
“Did you say the Bible is wrong? Please. It’s always right.”
“That’s not the point, because it is possible to change the past. And that is what I am trying to do right now!” I added. “Or, I mean, the present. The spaghetti supper! You’re going to that tomorrow, right?”
“Yeah.” His look was like, so what? Still sarcastic.
“Don’t go to it.”
“Do what? Don’t go to it?” He laughed incredulously.
“At least leave early,” I whispered. It was getting hard to talk, like every word brought me closer to an electric fence strung around what I wanted to say. “The storm. You ….”
Once I tried to crawl under an electric fence. I thought I was low enough to slip under the strand, but when I was halfway under, WHAM a giant’s fist hit me in the middle of my back and punched me flat to the ground. My vision was white with static and my ears filled hissing and my rubbery muscles tingled so bad that I couldn’t move.
Because how do you walk up to a near stranger and say, You are fated to die with three high schoolers. YOU ARE GOING TO DIE. If I told that to you, like I’m saying it right now, you wouldn’t believe me, would you?
But then again, I had a ghost of my dead self following me around everywhere, armed with electricity if I didn’t try to save myself. “I’m telling you, don’t go to it. Duck out after the supper. Please.”
“Is there some kind of girl thing going on here? What do you mean, the storm?”
I struggled with the news again.
A frown creased Jake’s forehead. “Then I guess we’re done here.” He veered off to his bus.
But now that Jake’s back was to me, now that I couldn’t see his face, I could suddenly speak. “There’s going to be a storm and the wall is going to collapse and that’s why you shouldn’t go.”
Jake turned, swaying from the suddenness of his turn, and the sarcastic look on his face was gone. He’d dropped his sword that he used on everybody, and now he was only Jake, looking at me as if he was trying to understand. Not a lot of people looked at me that way. “Say what?”
“It’s true,” I said. “I’m sorry. That’s what I was told.”
And then the sarcastic Jake was back. “Look. I don’t play around with people who pretend they’re psychics, or pretend they have ESP. I don’t listen to people who have these dreams.” He said “dreams” in a spooky voice, wriggling his fingers in the air as if they were little ghosts. “So if that’s what you’re playing at, I’m not interested.” And off he went.
A swarm of confused feelings danced inside my heart like a cloud of gnats, a cloud held together by some invisible force, and however much you swatted at them, that invisible force drew them back together again.
I clutched my books and ran down the remaining stairs. “Roxy, Roxy,” I whispered.
Roxy zipped up to my shoulder, wearing her long green dress, and glided at my shoulder as I ran. “Don’t beat yourself up over it. This guy has had no experience in people coming up to him and saying, ‘I know what’s in your future and you should listen to me!’ Not to mention that he thinks he’s Mr. Logic. But maybe you’ve freaked him out enough to where he will be a little on edge … maybe that will save him?”
I hated that Roxy didn’t even sound sure. “What if we lose?” I murmured, and the question drenched my heart in ice water. My eyes widened. I stopped running and looked at her.
The words didn’t seem to faze Roxy. “We might,” she said, and from the weight of her words I knew that she’d been thinking about this very carefully. “Zanny, you have to understand this. We might very well fail.”
I didn’t like how those words made my gut hurt. It was all starting to come real. Jake dead, Roxy dead … me, dead at 39.
Roxy shook her head. “But you cannot get discouraged. We’ve got to act as if we can’t fail. Besides, one does not fight only to win.”
Though I liked the last thought, I said, “You really are not helping,” as I climbed onto the bus.
April 30, 1947, Worth, Missouri.
A tornado dipped down upon the farming community of Worth to snap out the lives of thirteen and injure at least twelve seriously. The funnel-shaped storm tore a path five blocks wide in which houses were splintered, brick buildings crumbled, and trucks and autos twisted beyond repair.
“Worth was blacked out,” Carol Schooler reported, “and it sounded as though 200 B-29’s were flying through it.”
Mrs. Ernest Packard,[* *]who lived to the north of the main street, was working in her strawberry patch when the storm approached. She saw the rotating clouds and saw the steeple of the Baptist church literally “take off” in the storm.
I spent most of the bumpy bus ride in conversation with Roxy, i.e. she’d talk to me and then I’d write a response. We went around and around about what we should do tomorrow, because the spaghetti supper was TOMORROW NIGHT, and let me say that again, TOMORROW NIGHT, and all I’d done was make Jake mad at me, and also got my rear kicked in logic stuff.
By the end of the bus ride, we had a plan, but it was pretty pathetic.
How We Plan to Make Everything Right
1) Get some TNT.
2) Blow up fairgrounds building before the spaghetti supper and beat the tornado to it.
*Ha Ha, Just Kidding, Here is *
The Actual Plan
1) Find the 4-H people in charge of this spaghetti supper.
2) Take ‘em hostage. Release them after the tornado for a ransom of garlic bread.
1) Abolish weather.
2) Blame the Republicans for the subsequent lack of weather.
3) (Roxy is now ranting about some Dick Cheney guy who’s working for Ronald Reagan. Who cares!!)
*Stop Being a Doofus and *
Make a Dang Plan
1) Find the 4-H folks in charge.
2) Ask about the emergency procedures they have set up.
3) Make sure everybody else knows about them, too
4) Tell everybody that that the southwest corner of the building is dangerous and they should stay away from there.
5) Go outside and watch for the tornado.
6) Blame the Republicans for everything bad that happens after this.
Roxy and I went glum after #5, and she halfheartedly added #6. The idea of standing out in a storm, watching for a killer tornado, was making my stomach hurt. Well, technically, right now EVERYTHING IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD was making my stomach hurt.
Roxy sighed as she looked over my list. “I feel like one of those soldiers who were sitting and waiting for the weather to clear before they could start D-Day. You’re sitting there and playing cards and trying to keep your mind off the fact that 24 hours from now, you and your friends that you’re playing cards with are going to wade through the sea, run across an open beach, and scale a steep cliff while this firestorm of bullets and grenades is pouring down on you, thick as rain.”
My older self has a real knack for raising my spirits, that’s for sure.
When I got home, I ate some saltine crackers to ease my poor carsick, or sick-sick, tummy, and headed up to Uncle John’s hill to look at the floodplain and river from up high, and maybe get my head on straight for a little while. I clambered up a steep path behind the old abandoned church, my hands on the ground to keep me from tumbling backwards, climbing through the old overgrown grasses from last year past the big old hackberry at the edge of the bluff.
On the way to the top of the bluffs, I passed through the old church cemetery. The May grass was short enough to see the old lime headstones, the names worn away after nearly a century of wind, rain, and sun. Lichen grew on these headstones, their tiny grey-green fingers covering the words. Some headstones were broken in half, or lay on the ground, hidden under clumps of tall grass and weeds from last year. Nobody mowed or tended the cemetery any more. In summer the grass grew chest-high and hid the headstones, and grasshoppers and katydids made an endless buzz over the dead.
Roxy looked all around at the fallen grave markers. “Twenty years from now, scarcely a one of these stones will be standing. All these good people who lived in Nodaway so long ago are fading into nothing.”
I looked around at the low, broken stones and felt sad for all those people. I imagined them climbing up here around the turn of the century – they must have had some kind of path up from the church but it was long gone now – and gathering around a grave of somebody they loved, all in black, and vowing to come back every day and put flowers on their graves. The cemetery must have been beautiful back then.
I traced the letters in one stone. They were so worn I couldn’t even read them. “What was Jake saying about fate and the world being already decided?”
“Oh, man, you’re asking me to summarize 2,000 years of philosophy in one minute, aren’t you. Well, okay, I’ll give it a shot. God knows everything, right?”
“So that means God knows our past, present, AND our future, right?”
“Okay. So if God knows our future, that means we can’t change our future, because God’s already seen our future played out, beginning to end.”
“What?” I squawked.
“And if God has seen the future, there’s nothing we can do to change it. So that’s why Jake says we don’t have free will.”
“That’s dumb! That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard!”
Roxy laughed. “Well, don’t blame me. It wasn’t my idea.”
I could not stand to think of my life bound up inside this little box because God already knew the future. “But it’s not God who decides if I do this,” I said, flapping my arms. “And God doesn’t make me do this.” I crossed my eyes and stuck out my tongue. “I’m the one who does these things, not God.”
“But God knows you’re going to do these things before you do them,” Roxy said, amused. “You can’t change what He knows.”
There was something final about that statement, and I knew that the statement was true, but I hated it. I could not accept it. Deity or not, I could not let God tie me up like this!
“So what? I know that God lives in heaven, but I didn’t put him there. Geez.”
“So because God knows something doesn’t mean he makes our choices,” Roxy said.
“Yeah! He, you know, knows stuff. Like he’s sitting there watching it. Just because I’m watching TV doesn’t mean I’m deciding what the people on TV are doing. Even if I know how the show ends!”
Roxy laughed and clapped her hands. “Awesome! I like that!”
Take that Jake, Mr. Logic, Mr. Stuck-in-the-Rules-of-Somebody-Else’s-Universe. Put that in your pipe and smoke it!
But then I groaned, realizing where I’d screwed up. “But no! Because the TV show never changes. So Jake’s right.” Stupid Jake.
Worse, thinking of Jake brought back that beautiful sad feeling I had when I thought about him, like a cello solo thrumming in my soul. I kicked at a clump of grass. Dang Jake anyway. This was all as stupid as a box of rocks.
Roxy said, “No, Jake’s not right. You chose the wrong metaphor.”
“In philosophy class, I heard a theory that makes a lot of sense. God is creating the world along with us, in the same time we are. God is watching us create the future as we speak, and He doesn’t know what the future holds either. We are both in the act of creating. Our futures are wide open to us. And even though I believe that God can exist in several dimensions and that he can see all times at once, I believe that when you can see all times at once, the future is the same as the present and the present is the same as the past. That’s really what it means to be timeless. This means that the future – and the past – can be acted upon the way we can act upon the present.”
Whoa. The thought was so huge that it didn’t all quite fit into my brain. There was only so much space for infinity in there anyway. But I got the general idea. “Won’t God get really mad at you because you don’t think he’s all-knowing and all-wise?”
“I think God has too much on his plate to worry about something that nitpicky.” Roxy stooped to make out the words on a worn, lichen-covered headstone. She raised her head to look at something behind the headstone – and froze. Eyes wide, Roxy slowly stood, staring at something.
I couldn’t see anything for her to look at. Only last year’s broken, dried grasses over the graves. Only the old wire fence further up the slope with the dark cedars and sumacs growing in the yellow, rocky soil. Only the sun, gone down behind the top of the bluff. It had suddenly become chilly. I rubbed my bare arms.
“Oh,” Roxy breathed. “I’m … very sorry. I did not mean to disturb you, sir.”
She was addressing an empty spot in the air. An empty spot above a grave.
I felt like a snake crawled through my belly, and the blood left my lips. Now the air was cold and smelled like earth, cold earth laced with frost – and rotted wood.
A flash of memory arose from the smell of rotted wood. My dog Cricket had been digging up here once, and I noticed something in the hole, flat and carved with a beautiful checkered design. I started digging, thinking it was a fallen gravestone, but then I caught a little piece of rotted wood under my fingernail from the carved thing. I froze in horror, staring at my fingernail. Not a gravestone. But the lid of a coffin. I just about turned myself upside down trying to get away.
A shiver now covered me with goose bumps. I clenched my teeth, wanting to run. “Roxy!” I grunted, hardly daring to move my lips. “Roxy! C’mon!”
Roxy never looked at me, staring at the grave. Suddenly she blanched but said, politely, “Sir, I don’t want to argue, but I am not unholy. I’m Roxanne Calvert. This young girl is also Roxanne Calvert, only at an earlier age. It’s 1984 and I’m trying to help her.”
No. Way. No WAY am I talking to a ghost who knows our name.
My heart was climbing up my throat, beating hard, like it was saying, “The heck with it, if you ain’t gonna run, I will. Outta my way!” I started backing up fast.
Roxy gasped, “Wait! Don’t!”
The fear in her voice rooted me. “Don’t tell me to stay!” I burst out. “You’re talking to a ghost!”
“You’ve been talking to me for the last three days,” Roxy said, her face strained and serious. “What’s the difference?”
“You’re not really a ghost. Not to me,” I whispered. Whereas that guy you’re talking to has been in the actual ground since forever!
That last thought freaked me out so much that my eyes and ears started going all static-y. I slowly lowered myself to the ground but ended up tottering in a squat, afraid to sit on the dead-infested ground for fear someone else might rise up….
Roxy didn’t even look at me, because her attention shot back to the ghost. “Sir …” she said, but something cut off. After a moment of silence on her part, her eyes got really big, and she stammered, “Um … um … um …,” like she was in big trouble.
The static in my head got worse. I lowered my head and started to pray. Lord, I’m sorry Roxy feels that way about you. But don’t make that ghost do anything bad to us, please! Don’t punish us with a mean ghost because I’m scared to death here! I don’t want to have anything to do with any ghosts, ever again!
My eyes were shut tight, so all I heard was Roxy’s voice. “I had no choice in the matter, sir. My younger self apparently wished on a pocket watch before I came through time to her, at the moment of my accident. I didn’t even see the moment of my death – I was violently pulled out of myself at the instant before impact and I found myself here.”
I hated how calm she sounded about it when I would have rather she screamed her head off.
“Yes, naturally I have a vested interest in the outcome. … Sir, that was not my intention. My younger self brought me back. You’re welcome to ask her yourself, if you like.”
Oh, no, sir, you are not welcome to ask her at all, but thank you very much for playing.
But the next moment, as if a radio had been switched on, a man spoke. “— to hear me. She can see me now, if she should choose to look up.”
[_I’d rather stay curled into a little ball and hope you’re talking about someone else. _]
But a different little part of me was in awe of that voice of his. Wow. It was like listening to thunder speaking somewhere far away.
“Zanny, please look up,” Roxy said, her voice wavery.
I did. A large-bellied gentleman stood on his grave, facing Roxy. His gray-white hair came down in frizzy waves from his scalp, and he had a large moustache. His beard covered his shoulders and chest and was parted at the chin into an upside-down V, so half went to the right side and the other half to the left side. The man was like God looking at me out of a cloud.
But cold seeped off him, an open door during a January blizzard.
“Sorry, Zanny,” Roxy added. “This …” she gestured toward the man, “this is Josiah Smiley, who died in … 1898. He was 53.”
Josiah’s bearded face and hawkish eyes looked like those of an old-time preacher, and he looked right at me as if I were bound on the express train to the bad place.
“Um … pleased to meet you, sir,” I scooted back against a nearby headstone. Though the stone was chilly, it wasn’t cold like this ghost, and the solidness of the white stone was a relief.
The ghost bowed slightly, his eyes not leaving my face. “It is not right and proper for your ghost to stay on earth after she has realized her place is with God. She needs to return to heaven and await her judgment.”
Oh no she doesn’t! “But what about tomorrow night?” I pleaded. “I need her help because some … bad things are going to happen.”
Roxy’s eyes slipped to me. “Yes. My younger self is going to see some young people die in a tornado tomorrow night. If we turn our backs on the students, that would be as good as killing them outright.”
OH boy. I didn’t really need to hear that.
But the ghost glowered at me. “Is this how people in your time react? As if you have no backbone, no integrity? For shame. You are a young woman, not a toddling child. Come now, get to your feet.”
This was nuts. Not only was I reminded of how bad tomorrow was going to be, but now a GHOST was telling me to stop acting like a baby! I got to my feet. He’d feel sorry when I fell over in a dead faint.
“Your sullen expression does not become a young lady,” Josiah added.
His scary glower was not becoming to a man of God, but I wiped my face clean. Dang ghost.
“My work isn’t finished here,” Roxy said.
“That is what all you ghosts say. In truth, your work was finished when you died.” Josiah reached out an inflexible hand. “By staying in the old world, you work against your God and His will. Now, come. Your place is before God.”
Roxy glided back a few inches, hands up to block him. “But it was God’s will that I return to the past and meet my younger self, and help her to save the lives of her friends, who are going to die tomorrow.”
“Their fates have already been sealed. It is not for you to change the past.”
I was not liking this. If Jake said it, and a spirit fresh from God said it, it had to be true. Yet I could not, could not, accept that. “Um … sir?” I clambered to my feet, though I was scared to death of those cold, grim eyes that turned upon me. “Sir, I – uh – if God didn’t want my older self to come back in time, then why did he answer my wish? I made her come back. I was the one who was sitting in my room saying, ‘Oh boo hoo, I wish my older self would come here and help me,’ and I made a wish on a pocket watch. And then Roxy’s ghost came flying into my room like someone had thrown her by the seat of her pants. So if it wasn’t God’s will to have Roxy come back, then why didn’t God scoop her up when she died instead of throwing her at me?”
“This is no time for jokes,” Josiah said, his voice like thunder over the ridge, and I cringed like a struck dog. “Now set the pocket watch before me so I can destroy it. Time is not a toy. Then I need to take your ghost with me to heaven.” He held a hand out to Roxy again. “It is necessary for me to do this lest you fall into the fires of hell for the sin of breaking laws that are not yours to break.”
I had never really thought about hell before. I’d always assumed I was going to heaven. Hell was meant only for bad people that did bad things.
“Hell?” Roxy asked, an edge of scorn appearing in her voice – which really scared me. “But why?”
“You did not turn into a ghost for the sake of the young people who are going to die. You did it selfishly for your own sake, in hopes that saving them will save your life.”
Roxy went pale.
But I went red all over. Maybe I was selfish, but there was no way Roxy was. She wasn’t interested in herself. And there was no way she was going to the bad place. That ghost was wrong!
Josiah pointed. “The pocket watch. Now. Lay it here on my headstone so I can destroy it.”
I wavered. I suddenly sprinted away like a scared rabbit. “Roxy, come on! Follow me!” I shouted, looking over my shoulder. But Josiah had grabbed her. And she wasn’t even struggling! She was standing there, hanging her head and nodding like he was right and she was wrong!
Oh, no you don’t, I thought. I kept running, dodging graves and thick clumps of grass, all while winding the watch to keep Roxy at my side, praying I wouldn’t trip and fall. “Roxy, come here now!” I shouted, and let the watch go.
A magnetic wave from the watch passed over my hands and back across my body, reaching to Roxy. The magnetic wave strained, tightened through me, like a wire tightening until it sang. Then with a zing! like a violin string, Roxy stumbled at my side. “Augh! What did you do to me?” she cried.
“I saved your butt from the ghost, duh! Now come on!” I ran again.
Josiah shouted from behind me. “Stop! This is not allowed!”
Roxy cried out. I stumbled to a stop and turned. Josiah was right behind me and he had grabbed Roxy’s arms. “You can’t escape me. I am, after all, a ghost. Accept your fate.”
“That ghost is wrong,” I gasped, walking backward so I could get away from that Josiah and winding the watch. “Roxy is staying with me.” I let the watch stem go and the hands buzzed.
But the moment I let the watch stem go, I felt like I’d been kicked in the guts.
“Don’t!” Roxy cried. “Ouch! What is that watch doing?”
And as the watch unwound – it was as if time came unwound all around me. I stopped dead in my tracks, terrified out of my mind as the world flickered wildly around me. “Roxy, help!” I shrieked.
“Crap,” she said, folding in half. “My – I feel like my guts … being pulled out….”
Josiah fell to the ground on his knees and doubled over.
Whatever was hurting the ghosts wasn’t hurting me. In fact, even though I was almost out of my mind with fear, I couldn’t help staring at what was going on around me. The world had been swallowed by a crazed flickering of light and shadow, as if I were seeing several worlds layered on top of each other at the same time, like three movies being played on one screen. My confused eyes and brain couldn’t make sense of it – but if I could focus –
And suddenly I could see it. It was as if I was seeing all the history of that hill through the ages. All around me, the grass grew down and the graves grew up. I saw people flickered through the cemetery around me, processions of people in black up from the church (I saw that the side of the hill once went down to the church), gravediggers flickering around open graves, women planting peonies and narcissus, the headstones now white and shining. I saw a service over a grave right next to me, saw a small coffin lowered into the ground. A woman in black screamed and moaned, her hands flying to her face like birds, and I cringed.
But now different times began to interpose. In some timelines, the houses and church in the valley below vanished, and suddenly tall prairie grass grew on the hill. Trees filled the floodplain. The next second, the cemetery came back, but I saw dynamite blasts eating away at the sides of the hill until a coffin that had been close to the new edge of the hill flew into the air after one explosion. A second later, Indian children ran through the tall summer grass, some hiding among the high blades and then jumping out again when somebody ran by. I saw a night lit by falling stars that blazed out of the sky and vanished. A crowd of about ten white men carrying sputtering torches surrounded a black man on his knees, and one kicked him in the face. He wore leather boots with thick soles.
Now the images went faster and faster, images overlapping each other. A glacier suddenly filled the floodplain with its white brilliance, and a herd of mammoths clambered to the top of the snow-buried hill, their shaggy flanks heaving through the drifts. Then I was back in the cemetery, and two white girls were climbing the oak tree, yelling at some hunter to stop shooting as bullets zinged through the grass below them and blew some chips off a headstone. A group of boys pulled a rickety cart loaded with camping gear toward the top of the hill – wait! That was my dad and his brothers when they were kids!
But before I could look twice, the scene flicked to the floodplains covered in gigantic trees, taller and bigger than any trees I’d ever seen, and the smoke of Indian villages rose from below them. I smelled wood fires and corn. An old man with black hair, gnarled hands folded over his staff, staring with eagle eyes at the dawn. Then he was gone and the floodplain was mostly cleared, and a troop of soldiers in gray uniforms rode into town shouting. A moment later, a great ocean filled the floodplain, and the hilltop was little more than an island of rock where strange palm trees clustered. A strange fish/bug creature lay on the shore, washed up by the water. The prairie grass returned, and a pack of gray wolves passed through the grasses to the edge of the hill, looking down at the land below, scouting for prey. Trees on the floodplain started falling, being cleared for farmland.
Images over images, all the ghosts of old timelines flickering over each other. There were always several different times going at once, playing at the same time, shadow images that overlapped each other.
“Is this real?” I asked. Everything I was seeing was scaring the pea juice out of me.
But Roxy was still doubled over.
The buzzing of the watch slowed and stopped. The flickering of the world around us slowed and faded back into to a cool spring evening where the sun had set behind the hill. The watch must have revealed all those different timelines through its magic, or its lightning-filled properties or something. Why? Because I had wound it twice in a row? Maybe it screwed up on the second winding and went into overdrive or something.
But now that all the flickering and different images had stopped, now that the cemetery had gone back to normal and I was for sure solidly back in 1984 – Roxy tottered to her feet. “Don’t ever do that again,” she said.
“Then come on.”
But Josiah was also up, and he was calling other ghosts now. “Come and capture these two!” he shouted, and ghosts began rising from their graves – No! not again!
The ghosts were coming after me, and I had the feeling that if I locked eyes with any of them, they’d immediately fly to me like something out of a nightmare and lock on to my soul. “Come on, Roxy!” Shivering madly, I put on a burst of speed, aiming for a tree right at the edge of the hill’s drop, because I was not going to slow down for the edge of the hill. I grabbed the tree with the crook of my arm and spun halfway around the trunk as if doing a do-si-do, tearing my sleeve on the ragged bark. One foot slid off the side of the hill and I went down on one knee at the hill’s edge. I hardly noticed, glancing back at the ghosts before I dove down the side.
What I saw made me stop dead.
A fence stood there at the edge of the hill, a fence with high, misty bars between me and the ghosts. A fence was there where none had ever been before. It had not been there when I had run, pell-mell, into the tree. And the ghost of a young woman with a newborn cradled in one arm was locking the gate.
“Where’d that come from?” I cried to Roxy, as Josiah Smiley stopped short of the fence.
“You are not exempt from God’s judgment, young lady,” he shouted through the bars. “None of us are. Susie, open the gate,” he ordered.
Susie gave Josiah a wry look. “Keep your judgment to yourself. This is my family.”
My eyes about popped out of my head. Her family? How?
“That ghost cannot leave,” Josiah thundered. “She is unholy when she leaves this hallowed ground.”
“I declare, Josiah,” Susie said wearily. “You really do try a soul, now, don’t you? Go on back to your grave. You can’t be traipsing around looking for folks to haunt.”
“She’s called us out with that infernal timepiece of hers,” said Josiah, pointing at me. “And now the longer she keeps that ghost in the world, the more spirits will be allowed to wander. It’s because of that watch and what she did.”
I clutched the watch. Did he mean that crazy timeslide thingy I did? But I didn’t mean to do it. “What do you mean about spirits wandering?”
“I am finished with you. I’ve tried to warn you and you would not listen. God will finish your task in a way that goes against your wishes.” Josiah turned his back on us and faded into the cemetery.
I watched until he was gone, and then I looked at Susie, who was tucking the blankets in around her newborn. “What did you mean when you said that we were family? Am I related to you?” I asked.
“Blood calls to blood,” she said. “I’m Susie Martie, married to John Martie. I had three children: Ruby, Forrest, and Ernest. Nearly had a fourth,” she added, nodding to her little baby, “but I fear that it didn’t quite work out.”
I gasped, remembering the picture I’d gotten from Grandpa Carl. “You’re Great-grandma Ruby’s mom! You’re my Great-great grandma Susie.” I gawked at her. Now I recognized her wry look from that picture on my desk.
Susie said, “Great-great? Now see here, kid, I ain’t that old.”
She was right. She was maybe close to 30 — actually younger than Roxy. And she looked a little bit like Roxy, especially when they looked at each other. Which meant that I’d look a little like her someday.
Roxy said, “But what are you doing up here? You’re buried clear out in Amazonia, five miles away.”
“The shock of what the watch did went out and stirred up a few of us yonder, gave us an itch to wake up and walk in the world again. When I peeped out, the last of the shocks were fading. I said, ‘Why, I believe that came from Nodaway.’ I came on up to see what was the matter.”
“What did Josiah mean about the spirits wandering?” I asked again.
Susie looked down at herself and at her baby, who made a tiny baby yawn. “Well, I’m not the only soul up and around after that huge shake. And now Baby’s waking up,” she said quietly.
“So you’re saying … you’re saying that our watch is waking the dead?” Roxy asked.
My eyes went HUGE.
“A little at a time,” Susie said. “But yes. When Zanny used the watch to call you when you were already right there, it created an echo effect. And when she called you a second time, the echo effect increased. The echoes got bigger and bigger, and as a result you started seeing all the different times at once. The initial echoes have faded somewhat so you at least are in one world. But the rift you’ve created will continue until Roxy leaves this world and the watch loses its power.”
Roxy and I looked at each other.
“Go home, Zanny,” Susie told me. “Go home and fix this. You’ll have a long day tomorrow if you don’t.”
That made my stomach feel like it had been pushed off the high dive, but I managed to lie, “Yes, ma’am. But … um, Grandma? Is it true that Roxy is … that I’m going to hell for doing this?”
“Josiah mistook himself for God, the way he usually does. Judgment Day isn’t here yet, last I knew. Go on home. Leave that worry in God’s lap.”
Roxy and I were up late that night, even though I was sleepy as could be and I knew I had to deliver the paper route in the morning. But I wasn’t sleeping too well. I kept thinking I was awake when I was asleep, and then I’d wake myself up, and then I’d realize that I had been sleeping, and then my brain would start scaring me again thinking about tomorrow.
Roxy was sitting outside my open window on the roof, staring into the starry sky. “Come on, kid, leave the fretting to me. I’m a grown-up. It’s my job.”
It was funny how she was saying “kid” like Grandma Susie did. “Was Josiah right? Are we being selfish by keeping you around? By wanting to change the past so we can live? Because we want the other kids to, too.” I thought of Jake and my heart sped up.
Roxy exhaled. “I can’t help but think that it is selfish to some extent,” she said after a while. “The situation is unfair to those who died but couldn’t do anything about it. It was unfair to Susie and her baby. It was unfair to her daughter Ruby, who was only a little girl when her Mommy died.”
“Oh, I hate it!” I said.
“Me too, kid.” Roxy turned and looked in through my window. “And I hate to say this, but I’m seeing other ghosts, now.”
I sat up in bed, but then wavered between running to the window to look outside and burrowing back under my blankets to hide. I chose the blankets. “Where are they?”
“They’re nothing for you to worry about,” she said, when she saw me peeking out from under my quilt and pillow. “They’re folks from this town, walking here and there on their old business. They don’t need to be back here … they need to rest. I need to rest.” Roxy looked tired. “The longer I’m a ghost, the sadder and sadder I get. There’s something about walking through a solid world and not being able to partake of any of it that wearies you through and through.”
It seems weird, but I really could understand how she felt.
[_ June 8, 1966, Topeka, Kansas. F5. _]
_About 50 people were attending a musical recital in MacVicar Hall located on the Washburn University campus. When the people heard the sirens and the roar of the huge funnel, they hurried to the basement. _
Someone shouted, “Go to the southwest corner.” In the confusion they sought shelter in the southwest part of the building. They were very fortunate because this mistake it saved their lives. The southwest section of the basement was immediately filled with tons of stones and debris by the tornado.
The morning came too quickly. Tonight was the spaghetti supper … the storm.
And it didn’t help that I was well-aware of the mistake I’d made last night. During the paper route, I kept seeing people out of the corner of my eye. When I looked, however, I’d see maybe a trash barrel, or a scraggly shrub, or a fencepost. Something white would move, but it would turn out to be a cat, hurrying away from me. There’s something about being haunted that makes you jumpy as a cricket. It’s all those eyes of the dead watching you.
Roxy was looking all around her, too. Cricket pressed her shoulder against my leg as we walked, ears back in a worried attitude, tail lower than usual. We didn’t say much.
Once at school, I staggered out of the bus into the mirror-bright morning at the junior high. Instead of going to homeroom, I went to Miss Garland’s class, driven by this weird compulsion to see Jake. After this awful morning, I felt like the only thing that would soothe me was a glimpse of his face. What was WRONG with me?
I climbed the stone steps with the mobs of other kids in the dim darkness. The windows were frosted and barred, and they faced westward toward the shadowed, dark-bricked gym, so this time of the morning this flight was pretty dark. Voices echoed and ricocheted off the stone stairwells and hallway. But now they didn’t even sound like human voices, but like the voices of ghosts. Sitting there in the shadows of the hallway, outside the crush of students, I felt that if I listened for too long to those echoing voices, I’d hear ghosts more and more and humans less and less until I, too, became a ghost, and then nobody could hear me or see me.
Though it occurred to me that if that was true, then I’d already been a ghost. Ever since I started going to seventh grade I felt like a big nobody. I hated feeling that way. I wondered if that was what Roxy had been feeling like. I could see why that would get her down. Roxy wasn’t with me at the moment; she often drifted off to go look at “the stuff that you’ve been missing out on.” Whatever she meant by that.
Jake sat on the edge of a desk inside Miss Garland’s class, talking and laughing with some of his friends. I sat against the wall across the hall in what I hoped was a nonchalant pose, but watching him, I felt lonelier than ever. It would be so much easier if I could ignore this and hate Jake’s guts. I hated him already! Wrapping me up in this awful thing that was scaring me half to death.
Jake, as he talked to Buck, happened to glance into the hallway – and his eyes sharpened at me. He raised his chin and scowled at me, then turned away.
I shrank to the size of a mouse. I skittered back to class, and everybody tromped on me as I went.
At lunch I went to the cafeteria/gym and stood in line. The food was a zillion miles away because the line always took FOREVER. I kept seeing a dark, still figure out of the corner of my eye, like some hunched and brooding soul standing under the basketball hoop and watching me, but every time I looked, nothing was there. A cold draft drifted in from that side of the cafeteria, I rubbed the goosebumps on my arms and tried not to think too much about it.
Imagine being in the cafeteria. You’ve been starving to death through classes all morning and now, at last, you hold your lunch tray, i.e. your salvation, in your hands. For what it’s worth, anyway. There are all these empty seats around the lunchroom, but when you approach one, a girl snarls like a bobcat and says, “This seat is saved.” It does not matter for whom the seat is saved; it is not saved for thee. And when you finally do find a seat, you still have to eat the food, which is a regrettable act in itself. But ya gotta survive.
What’s more fun is when a girl from your elementary school is in one of these aforementioned groups, but instead of looking up she suddenly starts reading the side of her chocolate milk carton. In elementary school, you used to sit in her group. Funny how things change.
Roxy came in as a hummingbird, not as buzzy as usual. She found some wide-open space, she dropped into her usual self, like her heart wasn’t in being a hummingbird any more. Well, at least she could distract me from my creepy thoughts.
“Today, get your lunch and head up to Miss Garland’s room,” Roxy said. “They’re having a special lunch to recruit people into yearbook and newspaper for next year.”
I’d heard the announcement this morning but had spaced out. I liked writing, but I wasn’t in favor of joining groups. “Are you sure I’m allowed to go?” I murmured.
“Well, yes, of course! When they say everybody’s invited, that means you too. And what’s more, Jake will be there.”
That brought the shamed blood to my face.
Roxy looked carefully at me. “Deja-vu,” she murmured.
A snotty girl in line behind me said, “What are you looking at? Are you all right? Did you piss your pants again?”
A little bunch of giggles behind me. I sighed and faced front.
Roxy said, “You know, some people are like Slinkys. They’re not really good for anything, but they bring a smile to your face when you push them down the stairs.”
I laughed out loud.
The girl behind me said, “Excuse me? Excuse me?” in this snotty voice.
I turned and repeated what Roxy had said. The other girls cracked up. The snotty girl snapped, “I don’t see why that’s so funny. What are you laughing about?”
I turned away again, smiling myself. I was going to miss Roxy when she was gone. Which would be tonight.
I got my lunch and headed out of the cafeteria. I felt weird carrying my lunch tray all alone up the sidewalk between the regular gym and the school, like all the students in class would lean out the windows and make fun of me.
I balanced my chicken nuggets with tater tots, green beans, fruit cocktail, and milk on my speckled green tray. “Roxy, are you going to leave tonight?” I asked quietly.
She didn’t answer for a little bit. “Yes, I am,” she said.
She was so unenthusiastic that I wondered if the things Josiah had said were eating at her. “I don’t think we’re going to hell,” I told her.
Roxy kind of laughed at that. “It’s kind of interesting to think of a ghost as being as unenlightened as a regular person. Like me, really. But all the same ….” She went back to brooding again.
I climbed the dark stone stairs, worried that I would meet somebody coming down who would knock the tray out of my hands (I didn’t). But as I reached the top of stairs, I was relieved to see two other girls carrying their lunch trays to Miss Garland’s like this was normal. I took a deep breath and let it out as I followed them in.
Miss Garland motioned us to a long table in back, where members of yearbook and newspaper staff sat eating their lunch. Jake sat at the end of the table. One of the girls gave Jake a long, flat stare before she and her friend sat at the other end of the table. Jake smirked back.
A place was open right across the table from Jake. I hesitated. Miss Garland smiled broadly. “Sit down, let’s get started.” I slid into the open place.
“I’m the most popular one here,” Jake said. Buck groaned and punched him in the arm. Punched him right where I had grabbed Jake and said, “But you can’t let fate lead you to your doom!”
Tonight was Doom.
I picked up one of my chicken nuggets. I had been crazy hungry a little bit ago. But now my throat had swollen shut. I put the nugget back.
_You know the tornado will come tonight so at least you have some warning. You can tell people. You can even grab Jake yourself and drag him out of there. _
The idea of grabbing Jake made my heart jump, like grabbing him was a good thing. And maybe I should grab him right now and drag him out the door, just for practice.
The thought embarrassed me. This must be the result of all those hormones they were always harping about in that Modern Life class I had 5th hour. Stupid hormones.
Miss Garland talked about yearbook and newspaper. I watched her, but my right ear, turned toward Jake, could hear his breathing. The most private thing, the sound of his breath that kept him alive. Private and forbidden. I got goose bumps. Like maybe he should set his chin on my shoulder and breathe.
The thought made me all sad and confused and lonely. I looked at Jake. He’d been watching Miss Garland; his eyes shifted to mine. I couldn’t even make eye contact with him but immediately looked away. He was too close. I wanted to gaze at him forever. I wanted to cry. I wanted to do both while running the heck away as fast as I could.
What was wrong with me?!
Out of the corner of my eye, Roxy took a step forward, and I was sure she was studying me. I didn’t dare look at her. I didn’t want to look at anybody except for Jake. But I didn’t want to look at him. But I did.
“For goodness’ sake,” Roxy breathed. “Do you know what I remembered?”
Miserable, I shook my head the teeniest bit.
“My dear,” she said gently, “I saw myself, sad and confused, fall in love.”
Fall in LOVE?! With HIM?! No way! Maybe I was coming down with a virus!
“I had an inkling of what was happening, but I didn’t want to say anything until I was sure,” Roxy added. “Well, this certainly adds to your excitement.”
Look, if I wanted excitement, I’d punch my principal in the nose. I’d jump a car over an old creek bed. I’d tell Grandpa Vance to vote Republican. But I didn’t WANT excitement. I wanted to crawl under a rock and hide, instead of go around like this, in “love,” feeling like I’d been turned inside out and my heart was beating outside of my chest for everybody to see.
The thought made me want to curl up and die again, but no time for that! Because then Miss Garland said, “Now we’re going to split up in groups and take a 10-minute tour around the newspaper and yearbook labs. This side of the table will go with Ben. And this side of the table …” She pointed at my side – “… will go with Jake.”
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, I thought.
Jake got to his feet and leaned across the table to me. “No philosophic arguments.”
“Well … no!” I stammered, immediately upset and annoyed.
“Aw, come on,” Buck said as our side of the table gathered. “A nice debate would liven things up for sure.”
“Don’t even start,” Jake said pointedly.
Buck rolled his eyes at me as if sharing a private joke. I grinned a little. I couldn’t help it. Too bad I couldn’t have lighted on him instead of Jake.
So Jake took us around the lab and the darkroom, and I gazed at him when he wasn’t looking at me, and looked elsewhere when he turned toward us to talk, and I was my usual mess. In love? Ha. That was the dumbest thing I’d ever heard.
When the mini-tour was done, we had a few minutes before the next lunch bell rang, so everybody put their lunch trays in a stack by a big trash can and stood around talking. I sidled up to Jake, who was at the layout table, lining up pencils and blowing invisible dust off of stuff. Buck was saying, “You want to hear about messy? Well, in my room, I have this cereal bowl with a little layer of old milk and cereal in it, and it grew this a perfect layer of fuzzy black mold at the bottom, like a soft, black carpet, except unlike a carpet it gives off the foulest stench ….”
“You can take that cereal bowl and stick it in your ear,” Jake said, polishing the pencil holder.
“I’d have to clean out my ear first so the bowl would fit.”
It was like they got a kick out of driving each other nuts. It was kind of fun to watch though I didn’t get it.
Miss Garland said, “Thanks, everybody, for coming out today. I hope to see all of you next year in yearbook and newspaper class.”
“But she won’t see you-all next year,” I said to Jake.
“That’s because I’ll be in high school.” Jake put a big ruler in a drawer.
“You won’t be in high school, either, if you go to the spaghetti supper tonight,” I said.
Jake looked at me with an incredulous laugh. “What is with you? Knock it off.”
“So this is the girl?” Buck asked, giving me a serious, candid look.
“Yes I am,” I replied before Jake could, but I was talking to Buck. “What has Jake been saying? That I’m crazy?” My face went red, but I couldn’t stop saying it.
“Nah,” Buck said. “But you are kind of freaking him out. So why do you keep, you know, bringing up the spaghetti supper?”
We were talking in quiet voices. Buck and Jake and I stood close, like three points of a triangle.
“She’s trying to be a psychic and show off,” Jake said, exasperated, waving a hand at me.
“What if I really knew a time traveler?” I replied before I could stop myself.
Buck lit up. “Hey, that’s my field. Who is this traveler? Can we talk to her?”
Roxy yelped this delighted laugh. “This is awesome! Play along! I’ve been wanting to talk to this guy. Though talking to Buck … well, that would make an interesting twist in the time-space continuum.”
“Are you awake?” said Jake. “This isn’t the time to space out.”
“Play along. Like it’s a story,” Roxy decided.
“Nah, I’m messing with you.” This was my last chance to tell them anything, and I knew that I had to get as close to the truth as possible. “I had this dream about a disaster taking place at the spaghetti supper tonight. I’ve been having it for the last week. And it’s like my self from the future keeps telling me that some folks are going to, um….”
“Say it,” Roxy prompted.
“Get killed,” I mumbled, all the fun gone. “It’s because of this storm.”
The guys stared at me. “And you’ve had this dream for the last week?” Buck asked, looking at Jake.
“You wouldn’t happen to know who is going to … you know.”
This weird, awful feeling entered my heart. “You want me to point them out?” I laughed the worst laugh I ever laughed.
Jake looked sick to his stomach. “Shut the hell up.”
I stopped laughing like I’d been slapped.
Jake’s steely glare brought the blood thrumming into my ears. “I don’t know who you think you are, or what you’re trying to accomplish, but this isn’t funny. In fact, I think you’re kind of sick. I don’t know where you get off, saying people are going to die. But it’s not a joke.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off his.
His face was shaking slightly as he spoke. “And when we go home tonight after the spaghetti supper, all safe and sound, don’t come crying to me. Don’t tell me why your “dream” didn’t happen like you thought it would.”
The bell rang: my lunch shift was over. I stood there like I’d been struck by lightning. Then I picked up my books with trembling hands. One of them slid from my grasp and smacked against the floor.
Buck swooped it up and set it on the stack without looking at me. I fled to my class.
Well, except I was about halfway there when I turned around and went to the nurse’s office instead. “I’m feeling really sick,” I said.
When the nurse sat me down and asked what was the matter, I started crying. What could I tell her? That I’d seen the future and couldn’t cope with saving four kids? So I said I was feeling lousy. She had me lay down on one of the little cots off the office until I felt better.
It was quiet and dim here. The secretaries clicked away on their electric typewriters, and occasionally there’d be a murmur of voices, or a soft shuffling of someone walking around. Here in the quiet, it seemed like I could hear other voices, even some voices in other languages. I thought a little Indian girl wearing a white shawl ran through my room like a bird, but the next moment I realized that I’d been napping. Later on the nurse checked on me and then sent me on to class, in time for Gym. Talk about bad timing.
As I came up to the gym, I saw Karen hanging around outside the entrance, like she’s waiting for me. But instead of Cindy hanging around like a little dog, there’s a tall gangly guy hanging on her. I recognize him at once: Christian, who’s in 8th grade. He’s one of the three who are going to die at the spaghetti supper tonight. I can’t stand it. There are ghosts of the dead everywhere! And it doesn’t help that he was, at the moment, getting all kissy on the girl that had given me all kinds of heck since the school year. What should I say to Karen? Hey, Karen, you better knock off your nasty attitude or else I’m not going to save your boyfriend’s life tonight. No, I can’t – thinking that sentence is messing up my brain.
Christian was a tall gangly guy. Basketball player. When Karen pointed me out, he wrapped one of his long arms a couple of times around Karen’s shoulders – it’s a really long arm – and watched me as I came up.
“Hey. Girl,” he said.
I risked a glance. Karen didn’t look as snarky as usual, so I let myself say, “Yeah?”
Christian inflicted the Death Glare on me. “You’ve been harassing my girlfriend and it’s time you stopped.”
“I’ve been harassing whaaaa?” I’m sorry, but there are no words for the confusion and the sense of unfairness that hit me.
“Don’t look so surprised,” Karen said, placing a hand on her boyfriend’s arm. “You shocked me with something yesterday, and it hurt. I could have died.”
“I didn’t! And you didn’t! And I haven’t harassed anyone.”
Roxy looked almost mad enough to grab Karen again, but she didn’t dare. “Don’t let them get to you. This is awful, but don’t let them get to you,” she said.
I started crying anyway.
Christian looked really uncomfortable. “Hey, I’m sorry, but that’s what she told me. You’ve been harassing Karen ever since the beginning of the year.”
“B – but how?” I wailed. “What am I doing wrong?”
Karen had to butt in. “You told everybody that I never flushed the toilet at my house and that I stink. You said that I peed my pants in class. And,” she added, her mascara-rimmed eyes narrowing, “You screamed at me during the volleyball game when I accidentally missed a shot.”
I wondered when somebody was going to jump out and say, “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!” Because I didn’t do any of those things Karen accused me of; they were things she did to me. Well, except for the last thing. And I didn’t yell at her. Okay, maybe a little. But it was the beginning of the year and I was a dumb 7th grader with a poor grasp of social skills.
“I’d forgotten about that,” Roxy said. “So the whole year, Karen was mad about the time I yelled at her?”
“You’re a liar,” I told Karen. “That’s all stuff you said about me.”
“Not the volleyball game. You did that all your little self.”
“You need to leave my girlfriend alone,” Christian said.
“Only if she leaves me alone,” I snapped as the bell rang. “And by the way, do not go to the spaghetti supper tonight.”
Christian gave me a funny look. “Too bad. I’m taking my girl to the dance after the spaghetti supper. I wouldn’t miss that for the world.” He gave Karen a kiss and headed off to his class.
And I thought the day couldn’t get any worse!!
I somehow made it through gym, probably in part because Cindy wasn’t in school that day so Karen had nobody to egg her on in being nasty to me. But geez, the very thought that Karen was now going to be at the dance after the spaghetti supper was curdling my blood.
I went to the bathroom during gym so I could talk to Roxy alone.
“What the heck?” I asked as soon as I shut the door. “Was Karen at the dance last time?”
“I don’t know. I sure didn’t remember seeing her at the supper, and I didn’t go to the dance.”
“This is nuts! I don’t want to save a guy who’s her boyfriend, and I sure as heck don’t want to run around trying to save her dumb stupid self. Dang it, I can’t believe you didn’t know she was going to be there.”
Roxy spread her hands out helplessly. “How closely do you follow the social scene out here? About as closely as I once did, right?”
It was weird, but even though I knew she was me and I was her, I still sometimes felt like she had a totally different childhood than I did, because she was so different from me.
I looked in the mirror at myself. My hair looked oily again, and the curls I’d made with the curling iron that morning at the back of my hair were about gone, and my gym shirt smelled like my armpits. “I’m not really pretty enough to have a boyfriend, when it comes down to it,” I said to Roxy. Then I shook my head slightly. Where did that come from?
Roxy took a close look at my face, then leaned in so close that her eyes had to cross slightly when she looked at me. “Kid,” she said, “You’re in that awkward in-between phase right now, and nothing fits right. Right now you, and everybody else in this danged school, is a cross between a little kid and a teenager. You’ll grow into yourself by next year. Trust me, you will be fine.”
“But what about tonight?”
“When it comes to tonight, you are going to have to trust yourself.”
After gym, I walked into English class. Jake was at the back table, talking to Buck in a low voice, and as soon as I looked at them, Jake gave me an ironic, sidelong glance. But Buck raised his hand. After he said a few more words to Jake, Buck got up and came over to me, bouncing his duffel bag against his knee.
“Time for me to head to class. You doing all right?”
No! I freaked out the guy of my dreams!
The guy of my WHAT?
“Oh, yeah, I’m doing fine,” I said nonchalantly.
“Just so you know, I’ll be at the spaghetti supper tonight, too. I’m with the Savannah Lucky Sevens if you want to holler at me.”
“I’m with the Amazonia Golden Eagles. How come you’re going?” Because Roxy had not said anything about Buck being there. Heck, Buck hadn’t said anything about it either!
He gave me a weird look. “Because I’m in 4-H, duh. Actually, I was originally going to go to the taxidermist’s tonight, but then I changed my mind.”
I squinted. “The taxidermist’s?”
Buck grinned at me. “Well. See ya tonight.” Buck headed out the door into the scrim of students, which was clearing out since it was nearly time for the tardy bell.
What a nice guy. Better than some I could name.
When class was over, I planned to hide my face and not ever ever ever talk to Jake again. But when the bell rang, when I stood up and gathered my books, I couldn’t help it. I looked right at him. And my eyes crashed into his because he was already looking at me.
Oh, man. I wasn’t prepared for the look on his face. The sarcasm was gone. Only a haunted look. But then he cracked his knuckles and a touch of his sarcastic look was back. He looked at me and gave his head a tiny shake and was out the door. Jake passed close enough to me to where I could swear I could feel a bit of the warmth that came off his arm. And then he was gone, and there was nothing more for me to do but go home.
_May 20, 1957, Hickman Mills and Ruskin Heights, Missouri. F5. _
There were many square blocks of devastation in Hickman Mills and the Ruskin Heights area. In some places the ground was swept clean, huge trees toppled or snapped off. The Hickman Mills Bank lost its south wall to the tornado. The Hickman Mills Furniture Company was demolished and the cars on both sides of U.S. Highway 71 were tossed about like toys.
[_The tornado moved into Ruskin Heights, ripping through the shopping center at 111th and Blue Ridge Boulevard, heavily damaging Ruskin Heights High School, and cutting through a thickly populated portion of Ruskin Heights. Because of warnings on radio and television, many residents took refuge. At least 50 people took refuge in one basement, literally lying on top of each other, at East 110th Street. _]
Once home, Mom was herding me and my brother around, trying to get us ready to go. She fixed us some hot dogs to tide us over until we could eat some spaghetti. I chomped one down even though I really didn’t want to eat.
Then Mom drove us to the Fairgrounds. As we went down the road, I leaned my head against the van window. It seemed like there were shadowy ghosts standing around all over the place, though they’d vanish when I looked directly at them. There seemed to be a whole bunch around my little church that had the cemetery out back, and I wondered how many of them were my people. But when I looked, nothing was there. Now and then I saw one or two ghosts standing in the middle of an open field, or by an old abandoned house, or even the side of the road. I wanted to stop looking at them, but I couldn’t.
We pulled into the parking lot between the racetrack and the fairgrounds under a big elm. About half of the elm had broken off two years ago in an ice storm, so the elm looked gangly and sick. The wind seethed through its branches, which streamed out, long green flags all helpless.
Roxy showed up again as we got out of the van. It was weird to see Roxy’s long hair untouched by the wind like she walked in a ghost world. She looked at the sky, which was gray but not stormy. “Well, here we are,” she said. Her arms tightened against her belly as if she were nervous. Which made me even more nervous.
We went in through the downstairs entrance, a sticky side door that you had to bump with your shoulder to open, and entered the dining hall. This big basement room was dark with paneled wood walls and filled with long tables covered with white cloths, and it echoed with plates clanking and the click of silverware from the kitchen and kids hollering to hear themselves holler and ladies telling them they needed to do this and that.
Beyond the dark dining hall was the kitchen, brightly lit with yellow light. Inside, lots of grey and brunette ladies stood over pots of boiling water or bubbling sauce, or went back and forth with platters of garlic bread heading for the oven, or platters of garlic bread coming out.
The air was thick with the smell of simmering tomatoes and basil, and buttery garlic bread toasting in the oven. The garlic bread smelled so good, I wanted to eat the smell right out of the air.
Mom went off to talk to our 4-H leader. Lots of 4-H’ers stood around and talked, including my group. We were slated to help serve the meal later on. I looked at Roxy and tipped my head toward the upstairs door, and we sneaked up the stairs.
Upstairs was the big room where the dance was to be held. Roxy and I were alone. And here it was at last, the Room of Destiny. The streamers and decorations had already been put up, the stereo and speakers were stacked by the wall next to us, and the tables for refreshments were set up, though the big punch bowl was empty. Now all the activity was concentrated on the spaghetti supper downstairs.
I walked across the floor, Roxy at my side, looking at the high ceiling, the tall glass windows through which the dim afternoon light shone. Gray-white clouds glowered outside.
“Where did it happen?” I asked, my voice hushed.
Roxy pointed at the far left corner of the room, the southwest corner near the double doors to the outside. “That’s where it’s going to happen. This building will be torn down after tonight,” she said softly.
Thunder rumbled, a hollow sound inside the building. My stomach knotted. The corner of the room, decorated with photographs of kids showing off their prize cattle, chickens, and hogs, looked so solid and innocent. Not a creak, not a groan in the wood betrayed its secret.
“It must be nice to be you,” I blurted.
That definitely caught Roxy off guard. “Um … what?”
“You get to go back to my future, and you get to be okay. But I’m stuck here. With whatever happens next.”
“Zanny, I’m going to be here too. Reliving this along with you. Me. I don’t even know if I have a future.”
“I don’t care! I have to stay here and live with this … if I fail ….”
“You’re not going to fail.” Roxy rose up, her eyes blazing.
“Shut up! I wish you’d never come back.”
“Well, dang it, you called me first.”
“And stop being such a know-it-all all the time! Geez!” I spun and stalked to the back of the room and straight into the bathroom. The bathroom is the place I do all my crying, so it’s always nice to have one handy.
The bathroom was a single-room sort of deal, so I locked the door and sniffled while sitting on the toilet.
This crying wasn’t doing me any good and I knew it. I hated having all of this put on me. Hated being the only one who knew. Well, actually, the only one who knew about it AND could stop it from happening. Stupid ghost. Why did God have to pair me up with a dang ghost? Why couldn’t He have given me someone who could help me out who was solid? Why did I have to feel so dang helpless? Nobody ever listened to me before. Why on earth would they start listening to me now?
“Knock knock,” Roxy said outside the door.
“Okay,” she said meekly.
My head was whirling, and I put my head in my hands for a little bit. But it didn’t do any good. And now that I was thinking about it, I was too restless to sit here and whimper – and that sounds like something Roxy would say, I thought. Darn her, anyway. I dried my eyes and went back out into the main hall, looking around for something I could do. But then my mom came up the stairs.
“Zanny, what are you doing here?” she said. “You need to be downstairs. The spaghetti’s ready and people need to be served.”
“Mom, what if there’s a storm tonight?” I blurted out.
She sighed her Mom Sigh, complete with eye roll. “Zanny, there’s not anything in the forecast besides rain and wind. You can’t get this bent out of shape every time you see a cloud in the sky.”
Aw, geez, all those years of freaking out every time a storm alert sounded has now come back to bite me in the rear. “I’m not scared of any storm,” I lied. “But, um, I heard on the radio that there’s going to be a really bad storm coming in from that way later tonight.” I pointed at the southwest corner of the room. “It won’t be until later. But the storm’s going to be really dangerous. We’ve got to let people know to get into the basement when it comes.”
“I don’t know what you were watching, but they didn’t say anything about it on Channel 2 or on the radio tonight.”
“It was … the radio station out of Maryville,” I improvised. “They said it was going to come in from Iowa. That’s probably why Channel 2 didn’t say anything.”
“Honey, the Iowa border is two hours away. They have storms up there all the time that never make it down here. Honestly, I wish you’d stop listening to the radio altogether because every time there’s a storm warning you go overboard, blah blah blah etc. etc.”
I went downstairs, thinking Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrgggggggggghhhhhhhhh to myself the whole way down to drown out Mom’s voice. This stinks, I thought. Now if I even open my mouth, Mom’s going to say, “Ignore my daughter. She thinks every little cloud is a big bad storm.”
I joined the Amazonia Golden Eagles in the serving line, and they put me in charge of handing out bread. Oh goody: tempt me with the delicious bread I’ve been drooling over all night. Well, the heck with that. I picked up a piece of bread, turned my back to the hall, and took a couple of bites. Mmm garlic bread, hot buttery bread, I could write a song about you.
“Ommm, Zanny’s eating the garlic bread,” my cousin said. I put my bread into the pocket of my apron (I sewed it myself for 4-H and purposely made my pocket extra-big), wiped my hands on my jeans, and went back to serving. The bread made me feel better, like it steadied me somehow. I should eat this stuff more often.
I served customers. Farmers wore seed caps and bib overalls, their rough hands arranging their bread on their paper plates. Wives with poofy hair and manicured nails came down the line, followed with farm wives who put up their hair any old way and it still looked good, and they sported a few extra laugh lines from being out in the sun so much. Girls from school, came by, a few with ferocious permed hair, and they tried to ignore that they were being served by girls their own age. But if they knew us, and there would be a shy “hi” or two. Everyone was really nice. Some of the men teased us about our serving habits. One said, “I bet you’re getting hungry, having to serve us,” and I showed him the piece of bread in my pocket, and he roared a laugh. “Well, I see you’re a smart one,” he said, taking his tray to his table.
The ladies complimented us on the good food (though they had to know that it was actually the ladies in the kitchen who were responsible for the food) and they thanked us for our generosity, when they were the ones being generous by giving us good money for food they could have easily made at home. And each person would find a place at the tables and sit down: men in their good shirts with mother-of-pearl snaps, work boots leaving a little dried mud here and there; ladies with their ruffly blouses and nice jeans. Some of them would see somebody they knew around town and would wave at them, or go over and visit, or sit down at the table nearby and talk and eat. A little boy toddled around the end of one table where his mom and brothers and sisters sat, then ducked under the tablecloth and played peek-a-boo with an older lady across the aisle, and she made big astonished faces at him every time he peeked out. A mom said, “This is how we share,” and tore her bread in half and gave part of it to her kid. They bit into their garlic bread at the same time, grinning at each other.
Jake wasn’t the only one who was going to be hurt tonight. I studied the faces of the customers in line, as I handed each person bread and bread and more bread, as every person smiled or thanked me. So many people in our community. Grandmas and dads and kids. Aunts and uncles. People who’d lived here all their lives, who knew everybody else. And lots of us were related to each other, from all the Swiss ancestors who immigrated here in the mid-1800’s and had lots of kids and never left. I though of great-great grandma Susie’s grave in the cemetery behind my church where most of my people were buried, and wondered if she and her little baby were wandering around in that group outside the church, or if she was following me around and haunting me like all of the other ghosts that I’d awakened.
I wrinkled up my nose like I was going to sneeze and turned away from the food and pretended to sneeze. “Roxy!” I sneezed.
“Now that’s original,” Roxy said, standing on the table right next to the bread. “Hi there.”
“I need a Kleenex. Cover for me a second,” I told one of my cousins, who rolled her eyes. I dashed to the napkin table, which was quiet, and grabbed a napkin.
Roxy kept pace. I honked my nose and whispered, behind the cover of the napkin, “Who is supposed to die tonight? Are they in here yet?”
“I’ll walk around the room and show you where they are. And thanks for calling me back. I was going a little nuts there.”
“I am too.”
I hurried back to the serving line in time to place bread on the plates of a nice old couple who had shrunk almost down to my size through the years. The old man wore bib overalls and looked gaunt and old like Grandpa Carl. The little old lady patted her husband’s hand and said, “Now let’s get our tea,” like she was gently keeping him on track. He meekly shuffled after her toward the drinks table.
Roxy waved to me from behind a gangly guy at the fourth table. Christian, who was Karen’s boyfriend. I felt my cheeks burn to look at him. It was so unfair! But I could see that Karen was not there with him – a definite plus. Christian was all knees and elbows, stooping to his spaghetti. A grinning boy who sat directly across the table from him sneaked his hand like a spider toward Christian’s bread. Christian slurped up the rest of his spaghetti and poked his fork toward the kid’s hand. The kid, giggling, retreated, then started to sneak in again. The kid’s mom said something, and the kid sat down all dour. Christian waited until the mom wasn’t looking, then put the garlic bread on the kid’s plate. The kid grinned really big.
I handed out several more pieces of bread and kept glancing over at Christian and the little boy. A few minutes later Roxy stood at a nearby table, pointing at Liza, the girl who had helped me when Karen and Cindy stuck me in the trash can. I’d seen her around in 4-H because she was like a president or something, and she was also a cheerleader, but really nice. She had the cheerleader legs, strong and lithe. A group of friends sat with her, and Liza waved her fork around as she spoke. “Now the showmanship awards are something else,” she was saying. “There’s about twelve of us, and they give each of us a cow we’ve never worked with, right? We have to lead them into the ring with everybody else and put the cows through the paces and keep the cows calm, you know, so they don’t go nuts and run off. When I’m at home working with my cows, I usually sing to them – shut up! I do! So I’m out there in the ring, I talking to my cow, you know, soothing it. ‘Okay, girl, you’re going to do a good job.’ That sort of thing. And Mom’s up in the stands going, ‘Oh my God, she’s singing to her cow!’”
Another bunch of customers came by, and I loaded them up with bread. A basketball guy who loved his little brother. A cheerleader who sang to her cows. I couldn’t believe anything could happen that could be so terrible. The world wasn’t supposed to work like this.
I cleared my throat to say, “Where’s Jake?”
“I haven’t seen him yet. Let me take another spin around the floor.” Roxy glided off.
Maybe he hadn’t shown up because he took my warning seriously? Was it possible?
My heart actually sank when I thought of that, like I’d pinned all my hopes on saving Jake’s life, and now they’d been dashed. I couldn’t believe myself.
After a little while, our shift was over and Roxy still hadn’t come back. The next 4-H group, the Savannah Lucky Sevens, took over our spot. Buck waggled his eyebrows at me from behind the spaghetti pots. What a nut. I went with the Amazonia Golden Eagles, i.e. “My twenty cousins and two others,” and got in line. Our leader went off to talk to some guy wearing a tie with cows all over it.
Roxy swept over. “I see you’re looking at the guy you need to talk to.”
“Who? Our 4-H leader?”
“No, the guy from the University Extension who’s in charge of the 4-H program for Andrew County. Talk to him about the storm. He’ll get everyone downstairs when they need to go.”
Hooray! This is great! Somebody who can take control!
“And,” Roxy added, “The light of your eyes showed up.”
“Jake,” she said, jerking a thumb over her shoulder toward the Savannah group.
I spun. Jake had joined Buck by the spaghetti pots; his back was to me. For the first time I felt that the bare back of his neck looked pale and unprotected. I wished he would turn around and look at me.
Why are you mooning over him? Another part of me complained. That idiot showed up even though you told him not to! And now OH NO OH NO I HAVE TO SAVE HIS LIFE.
But instead of getting to wander away and quietly go to pieces someplace, I had to stay with my group and look perfectly normal. Ha ha! This was going to turn out badly.
The Amazonia 4-H’ers started going through the line, and I was ready to get another piece of garlic bread. Except guess who was manning my old spot?
With shaking hands, I got my plate. Buck gave me a giant pile of spaghetti and sauce, and then I stood in front of Jake, who held a piece of garlic bread in the tongs.
We were both serious as a heart attack. His chin was lifted a tiny bit, but his eyes were worn and uncertain.
My brain flooded with a million things to say, including, “You stubborn cuss!” and “Go home now!” and “I’m sorry I’m such a dork!” I’m sure he had a million things to say to me, too.
I looked at my plate and held it out. He set my garlic bread right in the corner of my plate, neat and gentle as an apology.
For the briefest moment I wanted to cry. But the feeling was gone like a cloud of breath on a cold day. “Thanks,” I said, really soft, and sat down, forgetting to get my lemonade.
A little old lady came up behind me as if she wanted to tell me something. But when I turned, nobody was there.
The supper went on. My cousins, aunts, and uncles were all there, and as befits my family we were all talking and funny and making each other laugh, and it was always fun to watch them. But tonight I had a hard time paying attention to them. There were a few empty seats farther down our table, and as I twirled spaghetti on my fork, I saw something move there. I looked up, but it was Roxy, sitting down on a half pulled-out chair.
When I looked at my plate again, though, I thought I could see them. Some guys with dusty bib overalls and long-sleeved work shirts, their hats with brims darkened with sweat sitting on the table next to their plates; women in dresses from the 20’s and 30’s, with those little flowers all over them, who kept their netted hats on; and they were all eating. When I looked up the chairs were empty, except for Roxy, sitting with her hands on the table, looking toward an empty chair as if listening to someone.
My family was talking all around me, so I knew they wouldn’t hear me. “What are they saying?” I asked her.
“I’m not sure. They’re talking about people I’ve never heard of, people who are probably long gone. They’re talking about calving season and pulling lambs and shooting wolves.”
“What? We don’t have wolves.”
“We used to,” Roxy said. “They were killed off in the ‘50’s. They paid a bounty for every wolf skin brought in – good money, too. The wolves didn’t last long after that.
“But these ghosts don’t seem to see me,” she added. She stacked her two fists on the table and slid forward and rested her chin on top. “Fiddle,” she added. “What the heck is going on? Do the Savannah ghosts not talk to the Nodaway ghosts or something?”
“Maybe they’re in a different reality.” [_Or maybe Roxy’s in this limbo where the only person she can talk to is me, _]I thought. But for some reason that bothered me more than I could say.
After supper, I put away my dishes and went upstairs. Some folks were up here now, filling bowls with potato chips and putting cans of fruit punch and glass bottles of lemon-lime soda on the table. I looked for the guy with the cow tie but he wasn’t there. I opened the front door and looked outside. It was windy, and a little sprinkle of rain came down now and then – a little drizzle. Nothing where I could say “Oh no tornado!” and have anybody believe me.
I hate waiting. Waiting is the worst thing in the world, especially when some big pile of evil is coming down the road, wanting to crush you like a tank.
Also I hate my over-active imagination for thinking of stuff like that.
One of the ladies with the fruit punch shooed me downstairs to help with cleanup, so I went.
Mom was helping direct cleanup, since our 4-H leader had wandered away someplace. I groaned and fell into line. The clock on the wall above my head said 7 p.m. The supper was officially over and we shut down the downstairs except for the people still eating. Other 4-H’ers wiped down the tablecloths, threw away trash, put up chairs, and swept the floor. Pretty soon everything was nice and neat and put away.
I was drying my hands on a dish towel when Mom said, “Well? Are you ready to go home?”
My mind went in two opposite but equal directions.
HECK YES I’M READY TO GO HOME. I’VE HAD IT!
NOOOOOOO I MUST STAY AND SET RIGHT WHAT ONCE WENT WRONG.
“Um, I want to stay at the dance.” But saying this made me all sullen.
“Don’t use that tone of voice, young lady. Come on.”
I started following her across the floor. But then I shook myself awake. “No, Mom, seriously. I want to stay at the dance.” I wasn’t sullen this time.
“Are you putting me on?” Because for me to say I wanted to go to a dance was like me saying, “I can’t wait to go to the orthodontist!” or, “Sit down, Mom, and I’ll do all the millions of dishes for you.”
“No. I’m not putting you on.”
She stared at me as if I was getting delirious. “How will you get home?”
“Um …. Grandma could pick me up at 10.” Grandma Marie, her mom, lived here in Savannah. “I could stay all night with her.”
Mom was looking a stunned, like Oh my gosh, my daughter is choosing to have a social life! All my years of work have finally paid off! “Okay. I’ll stop by Grandma’s on the way home and ask her to pick you up after the dance. At 10, right?”
Ten was pretty late for me, since my bedtime was usually 9 p.m. due to the paper route. I imagined myself waiting for Grandma on the front step after the dance, fast asleep.
Oh: except the building behind me would be in shambles.
“Zanny? Did you hear me?”
“Um, yes, that would be fine.”
“Well, have fun, Zanny. I’ll do the paper route for you tomorrow morning.” And she looked positively happy to do the paper route! Because her girl had volunteered to go to a dance!
Mom gave me a hug. Usually I shrank from hugs, but suddenly I didn’t want her to go. I clung to her like I was four years old again.
Mom squeezed me back. “Don’t be nervous. You’re going to have fun! Some of the best times I had in school were at dances. Though of course your dad and his brothers were always cutting up on the dance floor … but anyway.” She let me loose. “This is your dance, not mine.”
I wanted her to stay. But she was right. This was my dance, not hers. If I was going to save my life, I had to do it myself. “Bye, Mom.”
She swept out the door, positively glittering with happiness. And when the door shut behind her, I felt very alone and scared.
“Bye, Mom.” Roxy said quietly. “Okay, kid, let’s go and face the fun.”
Her idea of fun was dumb. “How long until the tornado?”
Roxy found a clock high up on the wall. “About 45 minutes.”
The garlic bread in my tummy turned into a rock. I touched the watch in my pocket, my mouth a thin, tight line. I wanted to run over and hug my ghosty self, anything, instead of going forward alone.
Roxy and I exchanged looks. I knew she was waiting for me to make a decision.
“Well, let’s go upstairs,” I said.
It was darker than normal outside the windows as the 4-H’ers gathered upstairs in the dance hall. Roxy and I went to the southwest corner of the hall. There the Home Extension lady, who would come to school and teach us about good nutrition, was loading the refreshment table with pop, cookies, and chips.
I looked at the pictures of prizewinning sheep, cows, and chickens on the wall. I already felt stretched so tight that I was afraid I’d break. It would be almost a relief to have that tornado come down – then I could do something. I sighed.
Roxy nodded, looking across the crowd. “I wonder if Dad felt like this before an attack,” she said. “You wait and wait, and you know Death’s on the horizon, coming your way. But all you can do wait, wondering if this time your number will be up, or if your friend’s number is up, and which friend it’s going to be.”
“I hate how you say stuff like that.”
“Sorry. I’m scared to death too. No pun intended. I’m just trying to keep everything in perspective. Dad’s been in the same situation, only worse. So has your uncles and your grandpa. And they were just kids, 18 or 19.”
I folded my arms and squeezed them against my chest. “How’s that going to help me?”
“Your own family’s been through the fire too. You’re not alone. You’re never alone. And a lot of the people in here …” she gestured at the kids around the dance floor, “a lot of them have had bad things happen to them, too.”
“Yeah, well, it’s not going to help me.”
“Oh, Zanny. You’ve got to believe me. You’re not alone in this.”
How many years had it been since she was in junior high? Did she forget all this on purpose?
The DJ started the dance music. I went to get some root beer off the refreshment table, but backed off. Christian and Karen were standing by the pop, smooching. Yuck!
When Karen came out of the kiss, she saw me, and her eyes narrowed. I felt so beat down that I knew I wouldn’t be able to withstand her attack. For an instant I wished the wall would fall on her. But the thought was so awful that I immediately took it back.
She scowled. “What are you doing here?” she asked in a snotty voice.
“Standing,” was my oh-so-rational response.
“Duh,” she said under her breath. Instead of cutting me down some more, she turned her back and got all clingy on Christian. She probably wanted to make me feel bad that she had a date while I didn’t.
Christian put his hands on her arms and moved her aside. “Hold on, would you? I want to get some pop.” Karen sulked.
It was mean of me, but I felt a little better. I grabbed my root beer and looked around the dance floor.
The DJ started a new rock song. I didn’t know any of these rock songs – all I ever listened to was classical, easy listening, and old country music. The girls started dancing and the boys started jumping and trying to do the splits in the air. Even though the music had a happy dancing beat and the guy who was singing kept saying, “Jump! Go ahead and jump,” Christian and Karen slow-danced across the floor. Some people are nuts.
It was 8:15. We had a half-hour to go. In the bright colored lights of the dance floor, the windows were black. I went to the big double doors to see what was going on. I was hoping that it would have cooled off by now, but no. Low black clouds made a lid over Savannah. Still hot as blazes. I could smell rain, and the wind whipped my hair around. A faraway roll of thunder gave me the shivers.
“Geez.” Roxy held out a hand, looking up at the clouds. “It feels like it’s about 85. This heat and the humidity is bad news.”
I felt a wonderful, cool gust of air, but it was from the door opening behind me. A couple of girls peeked out.
“Look at that. It’s going to rain for sure.”
“I hope it clears up before we go home tonight.”
A gust of wind hit us, and one of the girls cried, “My hair! I’m going back inside.”
The rest of the girls came out. I recognized them from school: Tanya, Jenny, and Linda. And Liza followed them out. An electric shock went through my body to see her.
“It’s going to be really bad tonight,” I said. “Just feel that wind.” Hint hint.
The girls came over to me like I was some expert. A really big gust of wind hit us, and we exclaimed.
“I had a cow snort on me like that once,” said Liza. “Only with more snot.”
“Don’t get started on cows. That’s the only thing you ever talk about,” Jenny joked.
“Shut up,” Liza said, swatting her good naturedly.
“We ought to let the guy in charge know,” I said.
“About the cows?” Liza asked, puzzled.
“About the storm. This one popped up awfully fast. Those are usually the most dangerous storms.” Actually I was making that up, but at this point I wasn’t really caring!
“Why? It’s only a thunderstorm,” said Tanya. “We have ‘em all the time. Big whoop.”
Liza shrugged. “I think this girl has a point.” She beckoned at me. “Come on, let’s go tell him.”
My heart skipped like a little kid with a jump rope. Now I had backup! But as we turned to go inside, there was a big silent flash of lightning right over our heads. I squeaked, sure the tornado was about to come down, but Roxy, who was farther down the stairs watching the skies, said, “Not yet.”
The other three girls ran inside. Liza stayed, watching the sky. “Cool!”
I touched her arm awkwardly because I didn’t like to touch people. She gave me a weird look.
“Be careful tonight,” I said. “I have a really bad feeling about this storm.”
“Don’t worry,” she said, holding the door open. “It’ll probably pass over.”
“No. Last night I … I dreamed about a storm, and a bunch of people got … hurt. And this storm is making me feel like I’m reliving that dream again, you know?”
Liza looked at me as if intrigued. “You got gypsy blood in you?”
“Mostly Swiss,” I said, puzzled.
“Zanny,” Roxy said, coming up the stairs. “Say yes.”
“Well, I think I do.”
“Cool,” Liza breathed. “Come on!”
As we hurried through the crowd with Liza, Roxy changed into a hummingbird and followed at my ear. “Not to split hairs or anything, but gypsy ancestry doesn’t mean you’re a soothsayer or a fortune-teller. It means that you’re a member of a persecuted tribe that has no native land to protect them.”
Thanks for the history lesson, Roxy.
The man with the cow tie went outside with Liza and I and squinted at the sky. “Don’t worry,” he said. “They didn’t say anything on the radio about a thunderstorm. But if it does storm, we’ll take every precaution to make sure everybody is safe.”
Roxy said, “Ask the guy if there’s a scanner in the building.”
So I did, and the guy said, “No, we don’t. But don’t worry. I’ve seen lots of storms all my life, seen a few tornadoes too. But this storm isn’t going to do anything. You have nothing to worry about.”
I felt like he’d patted me on the head and gave me a lollipop. I glowered at his back as he went inside.
“Oh well, it was worth a shot,” Liza said. “Keep me posted!” She went inside to dance.
I was mad. I wanted to go yank that guy’s cow tie and yell, “I’m sorry you’re not taking me seriously, but here in about twenty minutes you WILL be taking me seriously, so why don’t you do something about it NOW instead of LATER!”
I was about to vibrate out of my skin from nervousness. The booming music didn’t help. I tried to drink my root beer, but my throat was sealed like stone so it hurt to swallow. I put the can down with a frustrated sigh.
I could not stand here, waiting like an idiot. Dad had to put himself on the line in the war. I had to, too. I had to do something insanely stupid and make a lot of people mad at me, and I had to do it right now.
I softly thumped the back of a nearby chair, watching the kids around the room shouting at each other to be heard over the loud music. “Hey, Roxy,” I croaked. “Help me out here.” I walked toward the DJ.
“What are you doing?” she said at my ear in hummingbird form as I passed the dancers.
“I’m going to unplug that thing and stop the music.”
Oh, Lord. When I said that, my heart fainted dead away, and I stopped in my tracks.
Roxy flashed across the room to behind the DJ’s booth. She dropped into human form and stooped over the snarl of black wires, following each from its source to the plug in. “I found it,” she shouted over the music, pointing to an outlet on the wall with a forest of plugs in it. “This one,” she added, running her finger literally through it.
Several girls – including Karen of COURSE – happened to be standing next to the DJ’s booth, looking through his 45’s and pulling out records they wanted him to play.
Roxy glanced at the girls, glanced at me, glanced at the clock. “Fifteen minutes! We don’t have time to be scared.”
I shook my head really fast, like a 5 year old.
Roxy made a big show of trying to pull out the plug even though her hand only passed through it. “Look, I’m only a ghost, okay? I’d do this for you if I could. I want to do this for you. But I can’t! I’m a dang ghost! So come on! Do you want to save lives or not?” She was just about jumping up and down.
I knew that when I pulled that plug, everybody would see me.
I had always been a good girl.
I had always obeyed the rules.
I hated, more than anything, feeling people hate me. I feared their anger. And having a whole roomful of kids from school yelling at me – oh, no. I couldn’t.
“If I can’t motivate you, find something that will!” Roxy hollered.
There’s nothing that can make me do this, I thought. Nothing in the world. But obediently, I scanned the crowd.
And there was Jake across the room. He and Buck were talking excitedly and they were laughing and laughing, as if they were in the middle of a funny series of jokes. Jake just happened to look up and see me. Our eyes met from across the room. But instead of it being some romantic moment (yuck), Jake just gave me this puzzled look.
“Hey, Jake,” I growled to myself. “You ain’t the only one who can make a roomful of people mad.” I went straight to the plug and yanked it.
The music stopped. The record spun to a standstill with a small groan, now audible in the sudden silence. Everybody looked at me, standing by the outlet with a plug in my hand.
My ears started ringing. I was in some big holy trouble now.
The DJ man said, “Hey!” and came at me.
Karen yelled, “Zanny! You dumbass!” And everybody laughed.
I clutched the cord to my chest, feeling like I had shrunk to the size of a mouse, this close to fainting, but I yelled, “There’s going to be a tornado! A tornado! Everybody, please go to the basement.”
Though I couldn’t help but imagine a bunch of kids sitting around in the basement, getting madder and madder at me because a tornado was not coming along.
I was a liar. I was the worst liar in the world. And now everybody knew what a liar I was.
The DJ took the cord out of my hands, though I swear I’d been holding it as tight as I could.
“There’s going to be a tornado,” I said at the gawking people, and then burst into tears in front of everyone.
My head hissing with dizziness, my sight blurry, I headed right out the front door. The speakers came back on with a big boomph, and some guy said sorry for the interruption, I called the weatherman in St. Joe and there’s only thunderstorms on the radar, there’s nothing to worry about, as I crashed out the front door and to the stairs. A huge hissing rose around me like I was going to faint right now, so I sat down on the top step and put my head between my knees. A new loud beat – which seemed louder than before – shook the Fairgrounds building behind me. Idiots.
“You’re still right, Zanny.” Roxy said nearby. “The weatherman doesn’t know everything. Ooh! I wish those people could hear me.”
“Oh, be quiet,” I whispered to my tennis shoes.
I was so dizzy that it took me a minute to realize that the hissing I heard wasn’t only in my head. I turned my head sideways to look. Rain. Huge rain, pouring down like we were inside a waterfall. The wind shifted, blowing mist in under the porch. I scooted away and put my head down again. Stupid rain. Stupid man with a cow tie. Stupid everything. Especially stupid ME.
The music from inside because loud as the door opened behind me. And here comes the guy in the cow tie to throw me out, or make me go home, or give me a lecture, or about to call the police to come and arrest me on charges of Being an Idiot. But maybe he’d see all this rain and realize how wrong he was.
“So what was that all about?”
That wasn’t the guy in the cow tie. I raised my head. It was Jake and Buck. Except Jake was sitting next to me, and he seemed concerned.
“You looked freaked out,” Buck said. “So we came out to check on you. Man, this rain is incredible! You can’t hear it over the music inside. Maybe that thing of yours is coming true after all.”
I shuddered. “I hope not.”
“And if a tornado is coming, I want to see it,” added Jake.
I had to look at him for that one. “No way. Get your … rear down to the basement.”
Jake laughed. “The other day you really floored me when you asked if you should start naming names. Look, I thought you were playing some kind of game with me. Like you wanted to pretend you could read the future and hold some kind of … power over me, bringing all that old news up again.”
“Old news?” I asked, puzzled. “What do you mean? Were you in the paper or something?” I furrowed my forehead, but I knew I would have noticed an article about Jake. “Unless you were in the sports section. I never read that stuff. It’s boring,” I added.
Jake’s eyebrows quirked as if surprised. “No kidding. In that case, I owe you an apology for snapping at you. I’m sorry.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. “Um, okay,” I finally said.
Jake continued. “On that day, you said names. So who else is expected to die?”
I grimaced and looked at Roxy, who stood some distance from the building, watching the sky as the rain fell through her. “Tell him!” she shouted. “We’re running out of time and I can’t see a damn thing out here!” She suddenly turned into a small, sharp-winged bird – a sparrowhawk – and shot into the air, like she was falling up into the sky. Definitely not a normal bird trait.
“It’s supposed to happen to Liza and Christian,” I said.
Buck jerked back but Jake just frowned like that didn’t faze him at all. “We’ll help you,” he said.
“Yeah,” Buck said. “We’ll drag them kicking and screaming if we have to.”
I hugged my hands to my chest, bouncing on my toes. “Oh my gosh! That is the best news I’ve had tonight! I wish that –”
Lightning burst overhead and thunder exploded immediately after. I squawked and was this close to running the heck back inside and straight into the basement. But I couldn’t leave those guys behind.
Jake whooped. “Don’t be scared,” he added, looking at me. “It’s just thunder.”
“You have to promise me you will get your rear into the basement as quick as you can!” I shouted, remaining crouched in a little ball that the lightning had scared me into “You guys get Liza and Christian, and then you run like heck! You hear me?”
But all of a sudden, the rain stopped. A curtain of rain moved away like a matador’s cloak sweeping back over us. Above us, the low clouds in the suddenly rainless sky were this odd shade of sickly green that made me sick to see. The sickly clouds moved east above my head. Across the highway and the ponds and trees, on top of a hill, was the nursing home and the Franciscian monastery where all the nuns lived. The sky was black behind them. The clouds above were gray-green. The only thing I heard was the booming of the music behind the double doors.
Jake was gazing into the sky. “Zanny, tell me again how you know all this?”
My heart thudded. “Would you believe me if I told you my older self from the future is telling me all this and … oh no.”
Roxy dived out of the sky in sparrowhawk form, transforming into herself even before she reached the ground. “Rotating wall cloud!” she cried as she landed next to me. She pointed at the nursing home.
My heart started triphammering so hard it hurt, and I was so scared that I longed to crumple to the ground and vanish. “Rotating wall cloud?” I croaked in a little scared voice.
Jake said, “A tornado. We need to … oh, my god.”
“Whoa,” Buck said.
Because it sailed over the nursing home and monastery toward us, a wide, tall battalion of a cloud’s edge, and inside the cloud, turning soundlessly in the air, a gray funnel aloft, its base tightening as it rotated. It passed safely over the two buildings, thank God. But the funnel lowered toward the ponds as if it wanted to take a drink. A dust cloud sprang from the ground as if willing to meet it halfway, swirling, billowing up toward the funnel. The trees around it leaned almost flat to the left, to the right, as an incredible blast of wind hit them from above. The strengthening dust funnel stripped trees of leaves and branches before I even realized what was happening. The funnel was coming straight for us, churning more and more powerfully. The clouds to the right were black as fear. A huge grinding, screaming sound started up.
My ears popped so hard that I clutched my head with one hand. I was crying with fear but I yelled, “Get inside, you idiots, now!”
Jake yanked the door open. I about shoved the two guys through it.
We ran right into a booming wall of Michael Jackson. The lights on the dance floor drenched the dancers in reds, yellows, oranges. Kids danced and made goofy approximations of robotic Michael Jackson poses. Some guy moonwalked across the floor, and even at this juncture I wondered how he did that. “Tornado!” I screamed, but my voice did not carry over the noise.
Jake’s voice did, though. “Get to the basement, now!” A flock of girls screamed and raced for the basement door, and my heart did this little thrill to hear Jake’s voice raised in a shout.
“Grab people as you go!” Roxy cried at my ear.
In the southwest corner of the room, Christian and Karen were lip-locked. I grabbed their shirts. “Tornado! Run to the basement!”
Karen yanked back. “Let go of him, you witch!” She shoved me to the floor. “Stop playing your stupid jokes! They’re not funny.”
I sprawled on my back. I felt the building tremble. “Get out of that corner!” I was crying and crying. “Run!”
Jake ran up, furious. “Christian, downstairs. Now.”
No argument this time. Christian and Karen fled. Jake and I ran after them. If he dared turn back, I was going to just bulldoze him toward the basement.
Roxy shrieked, “Oh God, no! Buck! No!”
I spun toward Roxy’s voice, shouting Buck’s name over the booming of the music. My ears popped again, hard.
Jake shouted, “What?”
The lights flickered, and I saw him.
Buck had gone back and grabbed a girl who was heading toward the double doors to look at the storm. He spun her toward us and took her arm. Like a hammer blow I saw her face: Liza.
“Run!” I screamed, just as Jake took a running step toward them. I grabbed his shirt.
Time took a long deep breath, like the terror made my senses take in every detail.
A series of huge, electric-blue bursts sparked outside as power lines snapped. In the blue light, papers shot through the air like maddened ghosts. Buck and Liza took one running step toward us the moment the music and lights went out. The same instant, the windows along the south wall exploded.
Sharp things cut my face and neck. The wind screamed like the worst sandstorm in the world. I was crumpled on the ground, my ears popping so painfully that I could hardly think. The shrieks of panicked kids sounded very small against the hollow screaming that filled the world.
A huge wind sucked and lifted. I suddenly couldn’t breathe, like the air had evaporated. A huge groan from overhead. A pale light from outside came in through the southwest corner of the roof. Then the wind hit like a baseball bat,
and the floor bounced as big, painful things, like huge chunks of rocks with jagged corners, hit me in the ribs and back and head. Stuff hit me from all directions, it was too dark to know where it was coming from, and something cracked against the back of my head so hard that stars flashed behind my eyelids.
I was yelling for Mom. I knew the next batch of rocks was going to finish me off and I didn’t want to die. I didn’t even know the last thing I said to Mom when she left, and I couldn’t remember if I’d even said goodbye, but I knew for sure that I didn’t say I love you and I was an idiot for not having told her so with my last words and now she would never know.
Something big hit me and pressed me against the floor. I was yelling but I couldn’t hear anything over the howling and the hissing and cracks of flying debris, but now the cracks were coming off the thing on top of me, instead of me.
And everything went dead silent. The floor was vibrating. And then it wasn’t. Some huge rumbling continued nearby. With a hiss, sand and dirt fell out of the air as the wind died. Something light and leafy fell on the back of my hand, like a cluster of leaves off a tree.
Something pushed my arm from below and I screamed. Then I realized I was lying on top of a person. I tried to speak, but my mouth only opened and shut like a fish’s. Instead, without thinking, I picked up the leaf cluster with my good hand and stuffed it inside my shirt.
Rain poured out of the sky, soaking me. I made this wretched noise with my mouth, which seemed to belong to somebody else. The screaming and hissing was gone. The tornado was gone. Only a faint roar in the distance. And that faded and was gone, too.
Whoever was under me said, “Help me.”
And now my mouth worked. “Hold on,” I tried to figure out where they were lying, tried to figure out where the floor was, because everything was pitch-black and this cold rain was making me shiver, and my head had been hit so hard that I didn’t know which end was up, and I hated how the wet grit stuck all over me, and I wanted to go home.
I pushed on the thing on top of me, maybe a piece of drywall with heavy things piled on it. I tipped it off me. If the drywall hadn’t’ve hit me, I might have been pummeled to death. I rolled off the person, right onto a bunch of sharp-edged bricks that cut me in the ribs. “Ow! I want to go home!” I croaked.
“Help me,” said the girl.
For the first time I was able to turn and see her. For a moment I was staring at a stranger whose face was covered in tiny red cuts. Her hair was full of glass and dirt, now turning to mud in the rain. Then I realized it was Karen.
It was weird to look at her and not be afraid, or hating her. But I was way beyond that now. “Where’s Christian?” I asked.
“Don’t know,” she rasped. “Wind pulled me back here.” Karen started sobbing.
“Christian!” I called in my croaky voice.
“Karen! Where are you!” he called from around the basement door somewhere. It was too dark to see.
“She’s over here. Over here,” I said so he could follow my voice.
Christian came stumbling over from the basement door and cradled Karen in his arms.
I bowed my head. Thank you. One saved.
Roxy was crying as she came toward me, but she spoke slowly so I could understand her. “Zanny, we’re going to have to get strong. Please. Buck is under that pile of rubble.”
“No!” I croaked.
“You have to save him. Because Buck’s going to be your husband someday.”
I stared. This. Was. Not. Possible.
“Follow my voice. I want to save him myself, but I can’t!” Roxy was mad, like she wanted to hit something. “I hate being a ghost!”
[_Don’t think. Just act. _]I tried to stand, but the floor dipped and zoomed. I got on my hands and knees, and it was better. “Where’s Jake? Where’s Liza?”
“One thing at a time. Follow my voice.” Roxy was about five feet in front of me, in the pile of rubble.
I crawled to her. “Over here! Somebody dig over here!” I threw aside a few bricks, but I was so dizzy I couldn’t see straight. From underneath I heard a moan. Buck. My … husband?
Somebody stumbled up behind me in the dark, swearing. “Let me help.” It was Jake’s voice. I gasped as if I’d lost my breath again. He was alive, he was alive. Two saved. Except Buck had taken Jake’s place … “And where’s Liza?” I called.
Roxy rose out of the rubble, glowing a pale blue, and illuminated a piece of drywall with her hand. “Pull this out,” she said, ignoring my question.
I showed Jake where to grab, and he hauled that thing aside without any effort. Roxy illuminated Buck. He lay on his stomach, unmoving, over a pile of bricks, the back of his shirt torn, exposing the ridges of his spine and the cuts and bruises over his back.
I turned away and retched. As far as I was concerned, I had pulled the wall down on Buck’s back. It should have been me lying there, not him. Rocks tumbled through my head.
Jake moved in, searching for bricks by feel. “We have people over here!” he bellowed.
“Roxy, answer me,” I demanded weakly. “What happened to Liza.” Not a question.
Roxy opened her mouth to reply, but then shut it into a tight, sad line and looked at me. “I’m sorry. She’s gone.”
The Home Extension lady, followed by a bunch of guys, ran out with a big blocky flashlight in her hand. She held it over her head and shone it on the southwest corner of the room.
And oh Lord.
A huge pile of concrete blocks and wood and shingles and drywall filled the corner and reached halfway across the floor. Part of the roof had been blown away, and ceiling hung almost clear down to the collapsed wall like skin over a gaping wound. The rain was pouring in. Lines of rains filled the light of the flashlight, and its backsplash off the debris made a fine mist. In the backwash of the light I could see the Home Extension lady’s hair slicked down on her head, drenched. Her voice was steady. “How many people were here when the roof collapsed?”
“We’re digging somebody out here,” Jake called, hauling timbers aside. Buck’s face appeared underneath, eyes shut.
Roxy had moved about ten feet away, glowing over a heap of bricks.
“Liza’s there,” I croaked, pointing. Liza, the girl who sang to her cows.
The man with the cow tie began throwing bricks aside from where I’d pointed. A girl’s bare foot stuck out from under a chunk of roof with shingles. Her foot twitched. A sickening pulse of heat went through me.
I crawled away to get out of the rain and lay down, though the floor was thick with busted concrete blocks and shingles and grit and mud and wet leaves and a whole tree branch about eight feet long. Once I was out of the rain, I slid up against the wall under a table, where it was dry. I was shivering like crazy by now.
“I failed,” I said softly.
Before my eyes, Roxy changed – as if integrating the memories of the event that had just happened. Her face grew more somber. She had fewer laugh lines. “You did not fail.”
“How? Liza died. I saved Jake but lost …” I choked. “Why didn’t you tell me about Buck?”
Roxy shook her head. “I wanted to let you make your own choices. But now …. ”
A couple of volunteer firefighters carrying a white plank came out of the basement, headlamps glaring through the ruined building. A moment later they had Buck on the plank and had carried him to a dry area near me. I glimpsed him as they set him down: Buck’s face was bloody, and his glasses were gone. One of the firefighters began doing CPR on him.
“Roxy, I’m scared,” I whispered.
The firefighters didn’t notice me. Their headlamps were all turned on Buck.
Roxy stared down at Buck with a steely determined look on her face. “Buck. Come on. Don’t you die on us. We need you here.” All of a sudden she started as if something stood in front of her. “Oh, no you don’t,” she said, addressing the air above Buck. “Oh, hell no. You can’t leave now.”
The blood drained out of my face. I was sure I was going to be sick.
“We have no pulse!” the second fireman exclaimed. “Where’s the ambulance?”
“It’s still on First Street,” said another fireman. “A bunch of power lines and trees down in that part of town.”
The second fireman swore. “Ask them if there’s another ambulance coming. We need a defibrillator now!”
Roxy’s eyes got really big. “A defibrillator? I can do that.” She darted in between the firefighters and thrust her hands down on Buck’s chest.
SNAP. One as loud as an arc of blue fire.
Buck convulsed. The firefighters lunged forward to help him. Roxy was flung backwards.
And me – that electricity hit me too and went over me like a wave. All of a sudden I was seeing through Roxy’s eyes, saw her hands clenched above her legs in agony. The next moment, I stood inside her mind, as if it were a physical place, and I was amazed at how much bigger her mind was than mine, yet it felt so familiar to me. It was like a library I hadn’t seen for years, and it turned out much bigger than I remembered.
All over the walls of this library were photographs of my memories. As I looked at each image, it came alive, as if I were reliving that captured scene. But as I watched, some of the photographs were now fading into pale squares, then disappearing, leaving the wooden wall bare where they had been.
In a large photograph near me, I saw Buck, now an adult, glasses off, his curly hair tamed, his serious brown eyes looking directly at me. Behind him were the stained glass of my old church, and a congregation of familiar faces watching us. Buck wore a black suit with a flower on his lapel, and he held my hands in his, and his hands felt so warm and soft. But, as I watched, that memory bleached out, the outlines of the scene fading like a picture in the sun, fading into white. And then the picture vanished like breath on a cold morning.
I looked around. The walls were mostly bare. All that were left were fuzzy, half-developed photographs from when I was a girl. Near me was a super-clear photograph of a wall cloud and a huge, gray twister clearing the nursing home and the monastery. My heart lurched. I turned away.
There was nothing ahead for me but what I had to create on my own.
And then I was back in my young self again.
No time had passed at all. The firefighters had just lunged in at Buck. One shouted, “He has a pulse! He’s breathing!”
Roxy crawled to me. “Zanny, look,” she said.
I stared. Something was different about Roxy. Way different. Like her face was dirty. And –
— and she was breathing.
Before I could react, she grabbed my arm. I cried, “No!” But instead I felt a warm, slightly chapped hand – Roxy’s hand – gripping my arm.
I gasped and covered her hand with mine. “Roxy! You’re not a ghost!”
“I’m alive,” she said, eyes glittering with tears. “The car accident didn’t even happen! I can remember only tiny bits of my old life – it’s like one of those dreams when you wake up and for one minute it’s clear as day, and the next minute it’s gone ….”
I gripped her hand, her warm hand. I was going to stay alive.
Roxy looked at Buck. “I can’t even remember – I don’t” – She looked confused. “It’s gone. All I can remember now is what you already know: How he was so nice to me in school, and only a little thought about what could have been. All my old memories are gone.”
Except for the picture of the wedding. I felt sad. “But Roxy,” I suddenly said, “if the car wreck didn’t happen, then that means – are you going away?”
“Something is pulling me away from you. Ugh! I don’t want to go, but I gotta. Oh, Zanny, be tough! Push yourself hard and never give up!”
And like that, she was gone too.
“Roxy!” I screamed, and then I began to cry.
An anguished sound nearby made me open my eyes. Jake dropped down at Buck’s side, pulled off his shirt, and began to wipe the blood and dirt off Buck’s face. Jake’s lips moved the whole time – praying to God or talking to Buck, I don’t know. I wasn’t even shocked that he was bare-chested – I was pretty far gone – but I saw a big white scar right up the middle of Jake’s chest, like it was a zipper. “Wake up,” Jake said, rubbing the shirt around Buck’s unresponsive face, and he didn’t even care how awful he sounded, weeping like that.
That was about the time I passed out, I think.
I woke up in a hospital room with afternoon sun coming into the window. The clock on the wall said it was 2:42, and Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa were sitting around in my room talking like everything was okay again. Grandpa Vance was smoking, and it was weird because I’d never liked cigarette smoke before. It made me think of how, after Sunday dinners, all my uncles would light up at once and talk and the air turned blue with smoke while they talked. I started to cry because I would get to go ahead and live and listen to my uncles and be with my family, and it wasn’t fair that I got to live when Liza had died.
Mom and Dad rushed over and gave me hugs I didn’t deserve. Then, with quiet words, Mom broke the news: Liza and Buck were dead.
So Roxy had failed, too, even though she’d even started his heart for him. But I had failed him even more.
I closed my eyes and sank back into myself.
What else could I do now? My time for trying was over.
I could still hear Roxy quoting that song: “Who’s to say if you had that second chance, you wouldn’t do it again?”
The tornado had been rated an F3, with wind speeds between 158-206 mph. It had started out west of town as two little F0 tornadoes, out to spin things around and have a little fun. But then the strands combined and became an F3, splintering through 600 yards of forest as it moved east into Savannah. It had lifted briefly into the clouds, sailing right over the nursing home and the Franciscan monastery, like God picked up the tornado and lift it over. A 70-year-old nun, Sister Mary, said she looked directly up into the black funnel and saw trees and things whirling around inside as it passed overhead. The tornado had then touched down in front of the southwest corner of the Fairgrounds building, throwing cars around in the parking lot and driving a tree into the front wall.
After it hit the Fairgrounds building, it roared along for about a mile, tossing a couple of Toyotas, tearing a roof off a garage, sucking leaves and branches from trees, stripping shingles from a couple of houses, before it broke up and vanished. Eight minutes later, as the storm continued east, a small F0 tornado touched down, scouring a cornfield and throwing some stuff against a silo. Then it, too, lifted. The storm fizzled out after that, dumping a bunch of rain but nothing else.
About an hour after the tornado hit Savannah, the sky was clear. People could see the early stars coming out and the pale yellow on the western horizon, all that was left of the sunset.
The tornado injured a handful of people. Ten people, including me, had been beat up by bricks on the dance floor that night. Two others got hurt falling down the dark stairs to the basement. A dad and his kid who was driving out of the parking lot were rolled in their pickup truck. They had only a few scratches and bruises. The final injury of the night was received by this goofball who went outside to watch the tornado. He got whacked in the chest by a brick from the Fairgrounds building. He was standing about a half-mile away.
Liza and Buck were the only two people who died in the tornado. Christian survived, and of course Jake survived.
But if you do the math, I had saved only one life. And one life is not a heck of a lot when the other two were dead.
For the next couple of days, I wanted to sleep but didn’t dare because of these nightmares. I didn’t go to Buck’s funeral. I didn’t know him all that well. The future – well, if the future doesn’t happen, it doesn’t matter. But mainly I couldn’t go because I would have felt like the biggest fraud in the world. That feeling overpowered all the rest. Well, except for the guilt.
I missed Roxy like crazy. I wanted her to kick me out of the circles I was treading over and over in my mind. I wanted Liza to come back so I could tell her how sorry I was, but I also wanted to grab her by the shoulders and say, Why the heck were you going outside, you crazy nut! I already told you this was going to happen! I wanted to talk to Buck. Technically, I wanted Buck to come back and kick me in the face for not having protected him. I wanted to talk to Jake and tell him how how wrong this was, and how I wished there was somebody out there who would understand me. Like my emotions had become this big pit of slime and I’d fallen in and the sides were too slick for me to climb out.
Even my own face was an alien world. It was pockmarked from the spray of glass from the exploding windows, like I had a bad case of acne on the left side of my face while the right side was clear and okay. I had to wash my hair three times to get the mud and sand and glass out, because the tornado had blasted every millimeter of my scalp and hair with that stuff. Mom finally cut it short to help untangle it and found this place on my head, about an inch wide, where my hair had fallen out and all these new Grandma-white hairs were growing.
The kicker was, school would start again Tuesday. Counselors would be standing by. I preferred to skip, but Mom said no, though she was sad about it. I hoped she’d change her mind. Instead, Mom put on her motherly resolve and booted me out the door.
School was weird and awkward. I was still scared to sleep because of those nightmares, so I went to school all sleep-deprived, my brain all zingy. Due to my bruises and cuts and my sleep-deprived state, I was about as coordinated as a one-legged drunk man. Going up the hall, I stumbled into some students. They turned around to yell at me, but when they took one look at my face they immediately shut up and left. Teachers were coming up to me, looking uncomfortable, saying how sorry they were and telling me that if I needed to go to the counselor at any time, it would be okay.
And I was looking everywhere for Jake. E-V-E-R-Y-W-H-E-R-E. I was already this big ball of confusion, and Jake only made it worse. I did not know what I would do when I met him. I felt so sad for him. But at the same time, he was so close to Buck, and obviously I’d shot that friendship all to heck.
Sitting in my first hour class, Mrs. Rummy’s math problems zinged past my head, meaningless. You need to be taking more notes, Roxy had said. All that remained of Roxy were the half-conversations I’d written to her in my notebook – but no replies. It was as if she had never existed.
I walked to my locker, people stared, some sympathetically, but some just wanted to gawk at the relic of the tragedy. I pretended to ignore them. Whispers followed me. [_She knew the tornado was coming. She’d dreamed something that foretold the future. She warned them and tried to save them. _]
At my locker, I turned my backs on the whispers and worked my combination lock. From behind me, a girl whispered, “She’s the one who got Buck Callaway killed.”
My eyes popped and I shook like I’d been betrayed.
Oh, no. No, no, no.
I turned around, hurt. A flock of girls with Madonna-blonde hair with dark roots stared at me, mouths open as if waiting for me to drop a worm in their hungry gullets. At the back of this look-alike group … was my old enemy from gym class. Cindy.
For a second I actually didn’t recognize her, since Karen wasn’t at her side. But I knew that it was Cindy who had said that awful, awful thing about Buck.
Cindy smirked and popped her gum at me. “What?”
I’d always assumed that Karen was the lead girl when she was with Cindy. But now I understood. Cindy was where the true mean came from. Karen was her front, easily led, but now too broken for Cindy to play with. Cindy was running with a new pack of wolves now. And now Cindy was going to have a little fun.
I imagined Roxy standing behind me.
No: I didn’t need to imagine.
The Roxy I knew was gone, wiped out by the laws of time and space. The only Roxy now was me.
I slammed my books on the floor, glaring at Cindy. Then I looked at the little wolf puppies. “You girls back up,” I shouted so everybody could hear. “This isn’t your problem. It’s Cindy’s problem. Because Cindy doesn’t know crap about anything.”
“You wanna fight?” Cindy said with a slow smile.
“No. Fighting is stupid. And attacking people to have a little fun is even stupider. What kind of person are you, who gets her kicks from hurting people? Do you enjoy feeding on misery? Does it make you bigger? Do you, like, need a real hobby?”
Cindy was still smirking, and she hadn’t moved. “Come closer, and I’ll say you threw the first punch.”
“Perhaps you should think about how wrong it is to bait somebody who stood through a doggoned F3 tornado!” I shouted to the hallway at large. The sentence left me shaken, but at the same time, I felt this huge surge of power from what I said. I’d survived, and here I was, still standing. “No, Cindy. It’s not me I’m worried about. It’s you. What do you think, people? Is this girl stupid, or is she stupid?”
“I’m doing anything wrong,” Cindy sneered. “You’re flying off the handle again. Happens all the time.”
A voice in my mind whispered, She’s right, you know. I took that voice and buried it. “I take it you’re too good for Karen now.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes, you are,” said Karen, walking up behind me.
Ho-ly cow. My heart started pounding out of sheer habit. But Karen wasn’t talking to me. She was talking to Cindy.
“No, I’m not,” Cindy whined.
“Shut up,” Karen said.
I hadn’t seen Karen since the night of the tornado. She had a huge multicolored bruise on the side of her face, like a rainbow lay down and died. She was tired, and pale, and her shoulders were stooped.
But she said, “Leave Zanny alone.”
Cindy’s face twisted; her fists clenched. Then she threw down her fists. “Come on,” she said to her little wolf squad, and took off.
Don’t call ‘em wolves, I could imagine Roxy saying. Wolves are actually decent animals that got a lot of bad press over the years.
“Hey,” I said to Cindy’s pack, and two of them looked at me. “That girl is poison. Don’t trust her. Okay?”
One ignored me. But the other one nodded.
Karen turned away.
“Um. Karen.” She paused. “Thanks.”
She paused. She shrugged. She left.
I fled to class, my mind full.
By lunchtime, despite my victory, I was worn down by all the staring and by how I didn’t seem to fit into this world any more. As I got into line, though, expecting to eat alone again, several 4-H girls caught up to me. I recognized one of them as the girl who had come out to the front steps with Liza that night, the one who was scared of storms. She had a couple of long scratches across her face. I found myself running my fingertips over the pockmark scars on my face when I saw her.
“Hi. I can’t remember your name,” I confessed.
“It’s Jenny,” she said. “You want to eat with us today?”
Part of me wanted to run. Seeing their faces brought that night back so clearly and I never wanted to think about it again. But at the same time, we’d experienced the tornado together. Jenny’s eyes were watery, like maybe she’d been fighting allergies all day. But we knew better.
We sat together and were kind of quiet. Really, the whole lunchroom was subdued. But they did talk enough so I could get the names of the other girls – Tanya, Melissa, and Linda. Tanya had fallen down the stairs. Jenny had turned back toward the door only to be flung back by something that hit her square in the chest. Linda and Melissa had dived behind the DJ’s big speakers and had cracked their heads together. They’d laughed about it up until the moment the wall caved in.
Looking at them, I understood how it could have been much, much worse. I was also amazed at how much punishment the human body could take and still survive.
But then Jenny, her eyes threatening to overflow, asked me, “Did you really have a dream about the storm?” She casually took a napkin and blew her nose.
I swallowed. It was kind of freaking me out that people were whispering this about me. “Not really. I was scared of the storm and was afraid that something bad would happen.”
“Well, yeah, but I also heard you tell someone that you’d had a dream about a big storm and that we needed to look out for the clouds.”
“Um … no?” I said weakly. I did in fact remember having said that, though I couldn’t remember who I’d said it to. But now these girls were looking at me like I was a Grade A weirdo.
Tanya smacked her knife flat on the table. “Liar. Jake said you’d been after him all week not to go to the spaghetti supper.”
I felt my face go superhuman crimson.
“Yeah, somebody told me that too,” Jenny said. “So what kind of dream was it?”
I couldn’t answer. The dream was a lie, even if Roxy had been, in a way, real. It was wrong because it had failed. But that’s not right either. I am suddenly confused about what Zanny is feeling here, and why she doesn’t want to talk about that so-called dream.
Tanya snapped, “Who cares what kind of dream it was. Because if you had some kind of dream or vision or whatever, why’d you try to save that smartass? Why didn’t you try to save Liza or Buck instead of him? Hell, if you knew about it, why didn’t you make everything stop?”
“Tanya, don’t,” Jenny said.
“Or were you lying about that dream? Just trying to get attention? And then you screwed it up for Liza.” Her words sawed the air like knives.
I burst into tears. “Well, then I failed you, didn’t I? I failed Liza and Buck. I failed the whole world! I’m sorry everywhere!” I stood so fast I hit the tops of my bruised thighs on the bottom of the table and staggered out of my seat. People were quieting their conversations to look at me, the big dorky crybaby.
“Zanny, wait,” Jenny said, but I limped toward the girls’ bathroom on the far side of the cafeteria. Some people turned around in their chairs to watch, like I was the entertainment of the day.
For some reason I could hear Roxy saying, “God isn’t all-powerful or all-knowing. He does the best he can with what he has.” Well, you’d think God have a little more power than a seventh-grader! You’d think that He could have maybe given me a hand over here! Instead of deflecting a tornado off a nursing home and right onto Buck and Liza!
Well, it would have been even worse if all those old people and nuns had died, I thought.
Oh, stuff it, I told that thought, and locked myself in a stall.
Tanya’s accusation made me feel like the wall had fallen on me again. Josiah the Preacher Ghost was right. I had been selfish! I meddled with this only to change the timeline and keep my older self alive. Who would have guessed that I would kill somebody else off instead? And now Roxy was alive, but Buck died in her place. Why didn’t I run to Buck and Liza and push them away? I should have taken the force of the wall. Not them. They should have lived.
Somebody walked in and went into the stall next to me. I held my breath to keep from sobbing. My chest fluttered. Honestly, I wished I could turn that stupid sobbing reflex off. Stupid chest. Stupid tears. Stupid stupid stupid.
The girl next to me sniffled and blew her nose. “Don’t mind Tanya,” she said, and I recognized Jenny’s voice. “She and Liza were friends like since kindergarten. In fact, those earring she was wearing today? Liza gave them to her last week.”
Worse and worse. I let my breath go out with this awful noise. “Well, gosh, I wasn’t trying to kill her.” My voice was shaking up and down. I couldn’t make it stop.
“I know. I know. I heard what you said to Liza after everybody went inside.”
“Yeah. I was going to go back outside to get Liza and drag her back in, when I heard you tell her about that dream you had, and you warned her. You told her to be careful. You were trying to keep her safe. But she wasn’t going to listen to you. Oh, no. Liza listens to no one! She’s bullheaded like those cows of hers. She is such an idiot.” Jenny blew her nose again.
I came out of the stall and went to the handwashing fountain. I filled my hands with cool water and put them over my face to cool the red in my cheeks and wash away the tears. “You’re saying that because you’re mad at Liza,” I said, blowing the drops out of my lips. I buried my face in a paper towel.
Jenny came out. “Well, yeah! Aren’t you?”
“No.” Just myself.
“After I heard you and Liza talking, I kept an eye on the weather. Actually, I kept an eye on you, since you knew all about those cloud things.”
I blushed. I didn’t know a dang thing about clouds. It was odd that I was so ashamed about lying. I only did it to save lives. Yet it shamed me to be believed, like I was still, after all that happened, something of a sham.
Jenny continued. “When you came running through the crowd yelling about a tornado, I grabbed Liza and ran, too. But Liza broke away. She wanted to see the storm,” Jenny said, sweeping her arms toward the door as if Liza was, right now, running toward it. “I should have stopped her. I should have sat on her. She was such an idiot!” Tears balanced in Jenny’s eyes; she tipped her head back and let out her breath in a whoosh.
So Jenny isn’t really mad at Liza, I thought. She’s mad at herself.
The bell rang. We looked at each other, all puffy-faced. And all of a sudden, just like that, Jenny and I laughed. There wasn’t even anything to laugh at, but that’s okay. Apparently grief makes you kind of weird.
“I don’t want to go to class.” I stuffed my towels into the trash can.
“Then don’t. They have those counselors hanging around. We can skip class all day if we wanted to. Did you see how scared the teachers and students are of us?”
I laughed, kind of short. [_Well, maybe not so much the students. _]“I wouldn’t mind seeing the counselor. But I don’t want to talk to him. I’d rather talk to you.”
“You don’t have to talk,” she said. “We’ll hang around until we stop bawling all over.”
Now that was one sharp girl. So I took her advice.
I skipped Science and History, but I did go to Gym, because the counselor signed a pass excusing me from dressing out due to my bruised legs. Ha ha! But I also wanted to see Cindy. Make sure she knew that I wasn’t her little victim any more.
When I went in and gave the note to my crabby gym teacher, I ran into Karen, who was putting her duffel bag on the bleachers the way we always did.
“Hi,” I said. “Are you sitting out?” Friendly. A little tentative, but friendly.
“No. I’m not messed up enough. Not like some of you.”
We were really awkward; I didn’t know where to look or how to stand so I wouldn’t come off as being somehow rude. And she was trying. She really was.
“Is Christian doing okay?” I ventured.
She cleared her throat a couple of times and looked high up on the wall for a moment. “He’s doing okay. He’s doing okay. Walking. You know.”
Cindy came out and slipped Karen a sidelong glare as she went by. Karen shook her head. “Some people,” she said, and left for the locker rooms.
I climbed up on the bleachers. I was a little surprised to find my eyes were tearing up a little. I was touched – with relief, with love, with hope, something. Or maybe because I was overwhelmed and stressed and needed sleep. But … no.
I sat down and blinked a little to see the tears move around in my eyes. Then I realized I liked them. I sat down on the bleachers with my book and the tears dried up but the little feeling of hope still remained.
Though that feeling of hope was vaporized the next moment, when I thought about seeing Jake in English class next hour. Though I was sitting down, I put my hands on my hips to air out my armpits. I was going to have big wet stains under my arms by the time next hour rolled around. I reviewed my “Greeting Jake” options:
1) Weepy hug!
2) Shattering fist!
There was no way I was going to read that book now.
When the bell for next hour rang, I was sitting in the bleachers, relaxing my shoulders, breathing slow, but when I lifted my hands there was this tiny tremor in them, and my heart was doing these heavy thump thump thumps like it was attached to somebody who was running a sprint. Dang stupid heart.
I went to English class. Jake was studying his splayed hands on the brown tabletop. I stood by my desk, waiting for him to notice me. He never looked up.
I decided that the punch should go first, before the hug, but instead I sat down.
Miss Wisp stood in the front of the room, eyes red, her face blurry from grief. The bell had barely rung when she started speaking. “All of you will write a paper about what happened on Friday. Where you were, what you were doing when you heard the news. If any of you knew Buck, write about him too. How you knew him. Any good memories. The papers can be as long as you like, and you can turn them in tomorrow. I’ll give you a half-hour, right now, to get them started. Then I want to talk about what happened.” She turned abruptly and she sat at her desk again and shaded her eyes with one hand, mouth tight.
Students snapped open binders or tore paper out of notebooks. A pencil tapped against the tile floor, and someone exhaled as they rustled to the side to pick it up. Nobody spoke.
I got out my paper and looked at it. I balanced my pencil on my finger for a while. The room was so silent except for the rustle and tap of writing, and several sniffles.
I put my head down on my desk to see what kind of little puddle I could make with my tears. My arm was nice and cozy after such a rough day. I was exhausted.
A huge roar. Before my horrified eyes, bricks and mortar poured from the back of the classroom and collapsed on top of Jake and three other students; the walls slanted in; grit sandblasted my face –
I jerked my face from my arm. My long-sleeved shirt had left a fabric imprint on the wounded side of my face. The classroom was as silent as ever.
The half-hour was up. Miss Wisp stood in front of the class and asked where people had been when they’d heard the news. One girl heard about it on the AM farm station while her family was at her grandpa’s house. Most heard about it while watching the local TV station, when they broke in the middle of “The Winds of War” with the story. One person had been there with us, and she’d heard people yelling all of a sudden and was halfway down the stairs into the basement when the lights went out and there was a huge crash and she fell down a couple of stairs with some others.
Miss Wisp saw. “Zanny, did you see Buck that night?”
“I was with him,” I said, but my throat closed up. “Sorry,” I croaked. “I am pretty much done for the day.”
“She knew about the tornado,” Jake said from the back. “She was the first to realize what was happening. She told me and Buck to go to the basement. But God chose to be an asshole anyway, because Buck turned around.”
Somebody gasped at his cavalier treatment of God.
“We’re all a little angry at God right now,” Miss Wisp agreed.
“A little? God knew this was going to happen, right? Because he’s so all-powerful and all-knowing. And he knew that Buck was going to die. Instead of me, let’s say.” A jolt of electricity went through me to hear him say that. “Let’s face it, Buck is a lot better of a person than me. So what does God have in mind? He could have dropped that tornado on some prison somewhere. He could have blown away some serial killer, or some guy doing Satanic rituals. But no. He had to go after a bunch of 4-H kids. Can anybody tell me what God’s deal is?”
His words sucked the air right out of the classroom. It was like the tornado all over again.
And I thought I had survivor’s guilt.
I turned around in my chair. Jake was slumped on the table, but his eyes still burned. He wasn’t defeated, and I admired that. I thought of that zipper-like scar on his chest. “The tornado went right over the nursing home and the place where the nuns live,” I said. “You saw it.”
He scoffed and gave me a positively hateful look. “Preferential treatment. He’d rather kill kids than a bunch of nuns.”
His words burned. Like he was blaming me for the tornado. I sat back, breathing hard.
“Jake, stop,” Miss Wisp said. “God doesn’t control tornadoes. Accidents happen.”
“Then there is no God. He made the world, then dumped a load of crap on it and walked away. The tornado isn’t his fault, sure. Because he abandoned the world, and abandoned all of us.”
Miss Wisp’s voice was sharp, something I’d never heard before. “We all lost a friend on Friday, Jake. You aren’t the only one in the world who’s suffering right now.”
Jake turned his hateful look on Miss Wisp. “Yeah. I guess I’m not.” And he got up and walked out of the class.
This dead silence followed him. Then I found myself getting to my feet. I looked at Miss Wisp, at the tears that were suddenly flowing down her face.
“I’m sorry Jake’s an idiot,” I said, and somebody barked with laughter. “I’m going to talk to him. Or maybe I’ll just punch him in the nose.” And then I walked into the hall.
I had now officially weirded myself out. I had done two crazy things I had NEVER done before in school: comforting a teacher and walking out of class without permission. Crazier still, I didn’t care. It was like I had free license today to do anything I wanted to.
I saw the big double door at the end of the hallway closing, glimpsed Jake through its skinny window, walking away.
So I broke two more rules: I sprinted down the hallway to catch the door before it closed, and then walked out of school WITHOUT PERMISSION. Didn’t even blink.
What did make me blink was the things Jake said to me. Like that whole God thing was just a veil to disguise what was really on his mind.
Jake was a little distance ahead of me, going around the corner of the old brick library on the shaded east side, which faced away from the school. Too bad he didn’t choose to sit in the sun, I thought as I followed him. The May afternoon was a bit on the chilly side, and the sun felt good on my back. But then I thought of how cold the shade was, and then I thought of how cold it would be underground, and how dark it was, and then I felt awful again for even enjoying the sun.
I went to the corner of the library, next to the big stone staircase, but I stopped. Around the corner, Jake made a muffled, strangled noise. I felt sick at myself to be hearing this. Sick at myself that I was even there.
I sat against the sun-warmed bricks, looking at the red inside my eyelids, feeling so drained from everything that happened today. The sun felt so good but I hated that I was feeling warm, like maybe I should go jump in an ice-filled lake to let Buck and Liza know how sorry I was for continuing to feel, period.
I sighed and opened my eyes. And Jake was standing right there, glowering.
I shrieked and jumped, or kind of jumped since I was sitting on the ground.
“How long have you been here?” he demanded. A line of dirt stretched across his cheekbone and darkened the area around his eyes.
“Um … I got here just a minute ago ….”
“Don’t lie to me. You followed me out here. You wouldn’t have found me otherwise.”
“Good. I’m glad. Now get out of here.”
“No,” I said, now shaky, as I pushed to my feet. “Your argument is with me, isn’t it? Not God. Because I saved your life.” But what came out of my mouth was a taunt.
Jake’s eyes sharpened, narrowed. “I don’t give a damn what you did.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I think you do. Because I’m not too happy with it myself. I could have done better. I could have saved ‘em all. But I didn’t.”
“Shut the heck up,” Jake said.
Actually, those weren’t his exact words. I sat down kind of abruptly on my poor bruised rear, but I was too stunned to make my usual squawk of complaint.
Jake hesitated, chewing on the inside of his lip. His eyes were still narrowed, but his face was softening. “Buck said something to me that night,” he said, a little sarcastic, a little sad.
“He did?” I asked, though I was scared to hear it.
Jake’s mouth went tight. “I followed Buck out, though the paramedics kept telling me to get lost. But when they were loading him up to get into the hospital, he woke up and he saw me. And he said, ‘It’s not your fault. You didn’t know.’ And then they loaded him up and took him away.”
I put my face in my hands. Buck had died on the way to the hospital. My guts were crawling in my chest at how awful this was. “I wish he hadn’t said that,” I whispered. “Now I’m more sorry.” I heard Jake’s head thump back against the brick wall.
It’s not your fault. You didn’t know.
Oh, Buck. You would have been such a good guy.
“I ran away like an idiot,” Jake said.
“Me too.” I wished there was something I could do to make this moment better. Buck would have punched Jake’s arm. Buck would have put his arm around my shoulders. But if I punched Jake’s arm, he probably would have killed me. If I put my arm around his shoulders, he’d probably kill me even deader. I clutched my books against my chest. But we stayed at each others’ side.
“I still can’t sleep because of the dreams,” I said.
“Yeah,” Jake said. “I know what you mean.”
“And you don’t believe him,” I said.
Jake exhaled. “No, I don’t. In fact, if he was alive, we’d be arguing about that right now. Do you believe him?”
I snorted and felt a little bit of a smile appear on my face. “No.”
We were quiet for a moment. “You know what I told Miss Wisp when I left? I said that I was coming out to punch you in the nose.”
One side of his mouth twisted up. “Maybe you should.” He glanced at his watch and cussed. “We gotta go back and get our stuff. School’s going to let out in a few minutes.”
“You ought to wash that dirt off your face before you go back …. Oh!”
“What?” he asked.
“I’m going to give you a black eye,” I said.
“Oh, really?” Jake stepped back and jokingly held out his arms. “Then start punching. I’d like to see the looks on their faces then.”
“No. Like this.” I spit on my fingers, dabbed them in the dust, and spit on them again. “I learned this from my cousins. Hold still.”
“Because I punched you in the nose, duh. So I’m going to put a black eye on your face.”
His eyes got really big. “With dirt? You spit on that!”
I huffed. “I don’t see a water fountain out here. Just hold still.”
And, since Jake hadn’t run away yet, I put one hand on his forehead, holding him steady, as I swooped the dirt around his eye, following the contours of his skin. His forehead was warm under my hand, and I felt his breath on my arm as I worked. I ignored it, though I knew I’d be reviewing those sensations later. I brushed off the large crumbs, wiped my fingers off on my jeans, and finished off his eye with a little detail work. It was a passable shiner.
“You’re crazy,” Jake said, touching my handiwork. “Maybe I didn’t want to look like I’d just faced Muhammad Ali.” But his voice sounded impressed.
I shrugged. “Come on. I can’t miss the bus.”
I went into the class first, and when Jake came in, pretending to scowl, he brought down the house. Miss Wisp was astonished.
“Zanny wasn’t kidding about that black eye,” Jake said. “Sorry about my outburst.”
Miss Wisp nodded, a calculating look on her face. “I think I can accept that,” she said. “Wait! That’s dirt!”
The bell rang. The students headed out for the day. Some of them patted my shoulder as they passed, or gave me hugs (which was awkward but I put up with it) or said, “Good job punching Jake in the face,” which was interesting. But it takes all kinds, as Roxy would have said.
I got my books together and looked back at Jake.
When he met my gaze, he snorted and one side of his mouth twitched up a little. He came over, books in hand. “What? You thinking about adding a second black eye?”
Jake shook his head again, but this time he was amused. “Come on. I’ll walk you to your bus. But only this once. We’re not going out or anything dumb like that,” he added.
I quailed, blushing. Oh no! It will look like I have a boyfriend! But I forced myself to bear up under this terrible unfortunate truth as I walked out the door with Jake. At least he wasn’t carrying my books or some dang thing.
Once we were outside in the May sunshine, Jake said, “You kept spouting this hokum at me earlier, and it pissed me off somewhat. Now, I don’t want you to say anything about the Bible or God. Pretend we live in a world without them. What do we have then? You got an answer for that?” A little bit like he was arguing. And a little bit like he really wanted to know. Maybe he was trying to figure out the answer himself.
I needed to, too. Roxy did say that these next two years were going to be awful. I needed to find something to get me through them.
At first there was nothing. But then I thought about eating lunch with the survivors today. About my family sitting around the dining table at Grandma’s, telling stories. Of ghosts breaking bread together. Of my cousins ganging up on the bus for Booger Wars. About Roxy’s longing for the little town of her family before most of them died or moved away. Of the mourners in the little cemetery on the hill. Of the random things that bond friends – like surviving a tornado together.
And I thought of Grandpa Carl saying, “I could stretch out my hand any time – like this – and she was always there to take it.” How his outstretched hand curled on empty air. And how I’d seen the sadness in his face, and I took his empty hand in mine, because that’s what a granddaughter should do for those she loves. And I started to tear up again but shook my head.
Jake and I started down the stairs next to the busses. “I don’t have a very good answer,” I finally said. “All I can say is, if we don’t have God in the world, we have to fall back on our families. Our community. Whether you believe in God or not, we don’t get Him here on earth. So we …” I reached my hand into the open air. “We reach our hands to the people we love. Our families. Our community. It’s the best we can do.”
That last bit sounded kind of corny. But Jake was quiet. Like I’d said something right. And it felt really good.
“I think we’ve got a hard time ahead of us,” I added. “We just have to keep going.”
We kept going, then, and we reached my bus together, a zillion miles away at the beginning of the line.
“God damn,” Jake replied. “Wouldn’t it be easier for you to walk home? You’re halfway there already.”
“Some days I wonder.”
There was this awkward little moment. Then one of my cousins leaned out of the window and said, “Ha ha! Zanny has a man!”
“No I don’t!” I squawked.
“Who would ever want to hang around a woman, anyway?” Jake asked my cousin. “You women are insane.”
I glowered. “That’s because you males have screwed-up brains that see everything wrong.”
Jake snorted, amused. “Hey. Don’t give up.”
That seemed like the right thing to say. “Don’t you give up either.” And, what the hey, I punched him in the arm, just for fun.
“Didn’t hurt,” he said, and headed back up the hill while I got on the bus.
“Zanny has a man!” Now all my cousins had joined the act.
“No I don’t.” Actually I wanted to say, I had a man but I lost him before I ever had him, but that hurt too much. Instead I headed up the aisle of my bus, watching through the bus windows as Jake trudged up the hill. My cousins clustered in the middle of the bus, plotting a new war; one of them had a box of rubber bands. Another day in paradise.
“Well,” I said to myself, watching Jake go, “the future starts now.” I sat down.
“Hey, Zanny,” said one of my cousins, slipping into my seat. “You want some rubber bands? We’re going to have a huge war. It’s going to be awesome.”
“Sure,” I said, taking some out of his outstretched hand. “And by the way, kid – from now on, you guys can call me Roxy.”
If you enjoyed What You Can’t Take Back, take a look at my other novel, Butterfly Chaos. It’s a fantasy YA novel that’s actually a later draft of this one – same general plotline, but a different setup, different characters – and a much, much different ending.
[Three months after her cousin Toni died, Cassie is still reeling. Toni’s best friend now ignores her in the halls. Cassie’s cousin is dating the girl who torments her in gym. And Cassie has maybe a teeny-tiny crush on the boy who pulled Toni’s body out of the river.
Then Toni’s ghost visits Cassie and reveals that in two nights, a powerful EF3 tornado will rip into a dance hall, killing those three kids.
Cassie sets out to keep everyone from going to the dance. As she argues and cajoles (and stockpiles minor munitions to clear the building, just in case) she uncovers stories about her friends’ connections with Toni – and all the reasons they refuse to skip this awesome dance. Why does everyone have to be so bullheaded! Despite everything Cassie does to change their destiny, they find themselves directly in the killer tornado’s path … but there is always time for one last try.]
Fans of Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt, Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu, or Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech will love this book.]
The second-worst day of my life (so far) began on Wednesday, when I pushed through the swinging door into the junior high bathroom. It was a pretty September afternoon outside, with a warm happy sun perfect for basking in, but in this old crumbling school you’d never know it. The bitty window let in only the teeniest teardrop of sunshine.
As I moved through the girls crowded in front of the mirrors, their voices quieted. At least it wasn’t the circle of silence it had been a month ago, when I started school and Toni’s death was on everybody’s lips. But still.
Fluorescent lights flickered overhead, and even those tiny buzzes echoed in this high-ceilinged, stone-floored bathroom. Everything you did could be heard two miles away , so I came in here only when my bladder was set to declare a national emergency. Otherwise I held it until I got home. A girl washed her hands, the water hissing like Niagara Falls. A roar of a flush from a stall. I cringed.
Seventh grade at Schopfer Junior High, where kids from every elementary school around the county had been dumped, was like having a bit part in a zombie movie, only the zombies looked like kids who were better than you, and instead of brains they ate your heart. I missed Amazonia Elementary with its small classes and comfy reading nooks and big windows letting in tons of sunlight and air, and all the kids were so nice there, not like they were at this stupid place. I sat alone at lunch, my curly black hair was a wreck, and the level of mean from some of these girls was beyond anything I’d ever experienced.
Here was a stall that looked empty. I pushed the door open.
But when I opened the stall door, a wave of deathly cold rolled out from the door and washed over my feet, my body, like I’d stepped into a full-sized freezer. I could almost feel the ice crystals.
At the same moment, I lifted my eyes and was immediately was thrown into confusion. A girl was in the stall, standing on the toilet seat. What? No! The girl was floating in mid-air at the back of the toilet stall. And what was wrong with her –?
A shock shot through my body into my feet. The floating girl was Toni. Toni, my dead cousin, suspended in mid-air only a few feet from where I stood. Her toes dangled above the ground, and she clawed at the air. She wore the same black Adidas t-shirt and jean shorts she’d worn the night she’d died, but one of her flip-flops was missing. She might have been climbing an invisible ladder, except her reddish hair drifted around her face like she was still underwater, and her head was thrown back as if she watched salvation floating up, and up, and up, out of her reach.
My screech propelled me backward out of the stall, reverberating off the stone walls and the ceiling and floor. I flung the stall door closed. But it rebounded right back open, shuddering, and Toni was still there, but now – worse – her eyes moved – clicked on mine. She saw me. Her glazed, glassy eyes were the same as those I’d met when she sank under the surface. And the whole time, my body was awash in the cold that drifted off her, cold so deep that it would sink into flesh and bone and silence it forever.
With a sob I ran, shoving past the amazed girls who’d turned from their mirrors, and I burst out the bathroom door, crashing into the mill of students going to class and knocking some books out of a girl’s hands. “Hey, loser!” somebody yelled, but I didn’t even look. My entire laser focus was on running, and running, and running, and never returning.
Except at that moment, Toni’s cold hand locked around my bicep.
I went completely out of my head, fighting to pull free. I probably could have pulled down a house, but I could not break from that steel grip. “No! No!” I shrieked, and spun to face Toni’s ghost, ready to punch, kick, bite.
But it wasn’t Toni. It was Jake from English class who held my arm, his black hair curling down over his eyes, his usual sarcastic grin vanishing when he saw my face.
“Whoa, Cassie. Calm down, calm down,” he said. “What is going on?”
My heart staggered as if it had tripped. Jake’s face was so close to mine that I could smell peppermint on his breath. I made a strangled gasping sound. Jake had been there the night Toni had drowned. I’d never had the nerve to thank him for helping us. I could barely manage to talk to him at all.
But even now, even now when I was going out of my head, I had enough brain to notice the girl snarling at me as she gathered up her books, the glowers from the passers-by, and the bathroom door springing open as a flock of prettified girls, hair half-straightened, burst out to watch the insane misfit – i.e., me – die in flames of eternal humiliation.
“Th-there’s a rat in the bathroom!” I shouted at Jake.
Best. Save. Ever.
In that split second, when the word rat hit the air, the shock waves moved out around me. Jake jerked upright. “Oh, really?” he cried, and whirled toward the girl’s bathroom – and recoiled. The next second, the plastic girls realized what I’d said, and the shock washed over their faces, followed by screaming and hairbrush-clutching. One girl pulled open the bathroom door and shouted, “There’s a rat in the bathroom, get out!” New shrieks, amplified by the stone walls and floors, rang out of the bathroom, and a bunch of girls pushed out. Some of the kids in the hall surged toward us to see, while others just as quickly surged back, squealing. The word Rat! spread in a ripple of voices.
I was amazed. I had started all this excitement, me!
For the merest instant, I wondered if this was how Toni felt when she watched her pranks turn out successfully.
I tore away from Jake and hurried down the hall, dodging through the crowds of students. I pushed through the big double doors to the outside, but instead of going to gym – my next class – I ducked around the corner of the building, out of sight, and pressed my back against the rough brick wall as if I could melt into it.
Around the corner, crowds of shouting kids hurried to and from the outbuildings where they had band and art and gym. Alone, I shuddered, hugging myself tight.
It’s Toni’s ghost.
I laughed the awfullest laugh I ever felt, just to keep myself from crying.
Review: “This book was a delightful departure from many of typical stories I read. The author did a wonderful job of building the conflicts throughout the book. She chose the real things that a 7th grader deals with AND this was the genius of it that reminds me of some of my favorite TV shows, she didn’t hyperbolize to do it. She was a real girl dealing with real things like having her first crush and fighting with her relatives.”
Review: “Things I enjoyed about this book: good writing, good dialogue, Cassie’s snark and no b.s. attitude, the tension-filled storm scenes, Cassie’s big family with a ton of cousins and aunts and uncles. I wanted her family.”
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Melinda R. Cordell is a former municipal horticulturist, a master naturalist and a former volunteer naturalist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. These days she’s a full-time proofreader and a small-time chicken wrangler.
My first book, Courageous Women of the Civil War: Soldiers, Spies, Medics, and More was published by Chicago Review Press in August 2016. This was a series of profiles of women who fought or cared for the wounded during the Civil War. I found stories about some of the women that had not been seen for decades.
Immediately after, I self-published a short stack of gardening books, a short-story collection called [Angel in the Whirlwind, _]and _Butterfly Chaos, which I worked on with Gary Schmidt and Mary Logue at Hamline.
My first gardening book is Don’t Throw in the Trowel: Vegetable Gardening Month by Month. That was followed up by the rosarian-approved Rose to the Occasion: An Easy-Growing Guide to Rose Gardening, _]and recently, [_If You’re a Tomato, I’ll Ketchup With You: Tomato Gardening Tips and Tricks. My latest gardening book is Perennial Classics: Planting & Growing Great Perennial Gardens. Yay!
My newest novel is Those Black Wings, about a shy gal who runs screaming from love – and then gets in way, way over her head. Remember: It’s not love if he forces you to stay.
Stop by my Amazon author’s page here and check out my other books. Or look me up on melindacordell.com.
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Thanks so much for reading!
To Zanny, being in seventh grade is like having a bit part in Village of the Damned. After mortifying herself for the millionth time, she makes a desperate wish for a defender and friend. She never expects her older self to show up – especially not as a ghost fresh from a car wreck. Seventh grade was bad enough, but now Zanny is frantic to change her future so she doesn’t die young. To top it off, Zanny’s ghost warns her that in two days, a tornado will rip into a dance hall, killing three classmates: Big Mike, the cousin who is going out with Zanny’s worst enemy; Jake, the boy she has a crush on; and Liza, the one girl who was nice to her during her darkest days of seventh grade. Zanny has to go against her shy, scared nature to sabotage the dance by any means necessary.