After the F4 levelled the town, I tried to convince my daughter that twisters carried only the greatest people up to heaven. Mommy was one of the worthiest, the best of us. The storm wouldn’t take just anyone. Lacey wasn’t convinced by the lie but it was all the tornado left behind.
A marquee of now homeless folk lay wide-eyed underneath thin wool blankets on foldout cots. The chemical toilets were already backed up. The air got thick within hours. Scattered across the room were murmurs of prayer alongside sobs and quiet retching. Sometimes the funeral wake stillness was interrupted by a God dammit or you can’t smoke in here, asshole. The wall behind the canned provisions was already covered with Sharpie-scribbled have you seen… pleas, some in bold, block capitals as if the louder the people screamed, the more likely the storm would spare their lost.
Lacey wouldn’t go down, despite three made up stories about Percy the Pig and his farm adventures. She kept asking why she couldn’t have her favourite princess blanket.
“Not now,” I whispered, trying to stay awake while slouched on one of the plastic chairs a group of us brought in from the nearby elementary school.
“When they’ve fixed up the warren,” I lied again. There was no way the town could raise the cash to rebuild again after three tornados in a decade. Our home was named the warren cos Lacey had a thing for rabbits. We were gonna get her one but she wouldn’t come down from five. I’d built a hutch that was likely now splinters in a cornfield.
“Are my toys still there?” she asked.
I hushed her and promised we’d go in the morning if she got some sleep. Across the way was another father doing the same thing. I recognized him as the co-owner of the mom and pop store clear across town. The chair next to him was empty.
Lacey was looking for me to make good on my promise. I was hoping the cleanup crews or someone with an acronym across the back of their windbreaker would stop us going anywhere near our street, but a bloodshot-eyed guy with a hard hat and a clipboard lifted the yellow tape and told us he wasn’t gonna stand in the way of a family just trying to get home.
I carried Lacey on my shoulders as I padded through timber shards, gnarled metal, a monochrome beach of dust stretching into a scrubbed horizon. I should’ve been seeing kids shooting hoops in their driveways, the water tower a couple miles out, the italic charcoal plumes from candy-striped smoke stacks.
Lacey bucked and tugged my hair when we reached what was our home. I told her be real careful, don’t step anywhere you don’t see earth. As she turned my instructions into a game of hopscotch, I came across our roll-top bath, scratch-scarred but otherwise still standing. During the pregnancy I would pour warm water over the squirming Lacey bump, joking about how women in labor were prone to shitting the bed. Lacey was a difficult birth. She resisted every medication and forceps-based incentive to enter the world, only surrendering when submerged in bathwater.
I toed at it, kicked it, then started booting it hard. It shouldn’t have been there. It ought to have been sucked up and smashed against farm equipment, bombarding the earth with shards of porcelain—a holy penance for not loving hard enough when we had the chance. I picked up a block of concrete that didn’t belong, held it over my head, squinted through the sun breaking from the clouds.
“Daddy!” Lacey shouted, coughing and spitting. She had hauled her stuffed rabbit from a mound of pulverized drywall. I dropped the concrete and it shattered to nothing.
“You found Wilbert,” I said, wading over, wiping my eyes on my sleeve.
“It’s not Wilbert anymore,” she said, all quiet.
I took the rabbit from her and wiped it on my jacket. Wilbert was near-flattened and missing a foot. I wondered if finding it would bring us some luck.
“He just needs a shower and a couple stitches,” I said.
She took it back, lay it down on the churned up mud. “I think he’s gone.”
Lacey sat, bowed her head, moved her open palm down across Wilbert’s dangling eyes. She picked up two fragments of a door jamb, trying to smush them back together, then sighed adult-hard like she didn’t know how she was gonna fix everything.
I shoved a kitchen cabinet aside, joined her on the earth, pulled her close. I couldn’t figure out how not to crush her spirit by telling her if something’s cracked or torn it’s broken−what’s dust is gone.
“Was Wilbert naughty?” she asked.
“He was a good boy, and he sure loved you a whole bunch.”
“Mommy said that if you’re good you go to heaven. Are we in heaven?”
I looked across the rubble field, remembering how I’d insisted there’d be more work for me out here. Maybe it would be better for Lacey to believe whatever she wanted. Maybe then she could convince me right back that we were exactly where we were supposed to be, that you can only bounce when there’s no further to fall.
“Kinda like snow, ain’t it?” I said, picking up fistfuls of dust and letting it slide through my fingers like hourglass sand.
Lacey nodded and pouted, trying to be brave. She trembled against me in the breeze.
“Hey, here’s what we do in the snow,” I said. I blew dust in her face then lay down to make dust angels. Blinking against the sun, I made up a song that went angels in the snow, the daddy and Lacey show.
Lacey joined in, slow and unsure as she tried to match my rhythm. I held her hand fast and waved her arms until we became soggy-eyed dust ghosts who couldn’t stop laughing.
About the Author: Matt is 5'11" and enjoys, among other things, food, black coffee, bourbon, and the NBA. Willing to travel for any of these things. Has own bicycle. Would like to spend a summer chasing tornadoes. GSOH. Has a website: mattjpaul.co.uk
Story Song: "Alison Johnson" by Richmond Fontaine