“Where else are we going to go?” asked Kiley. She was standing near the battery-powered radio Anders had dug out of the closet and set up on the kitchen table. Kiley fingered the end of the radio’s long, silver antenna while the Emergency Broadcast System squawked out of the tiny blown speakers.
Anders, looking out at the gloomy, greenish evening through the glass double doors that led to the deck, said nothing. It would be dark soon. Too dark to see a funnel cloud coming, though they’d still be able to hear it once it was too late to get away. “We could always just stay here,” said Anders. “If it gets really bad, we can sit in the bathroom so we won’t be near any windows.”
“No,” said Kiley. “We have to get underground. A basement or a cellar.”
“But not the neighbors’ basement,” said Anders. “We don’t know them.”
“We can’t get in the car,” said Kiley. “It’s too exposed. There’s no protection in a car. We’d have to abandon the car and throw ourselves in a ditch if we ran into a tornado out on the road.”
Anders sighed. “I don’t like it,” he said again. “They’ve always rubbed me the wrong way. Ever since they moved in. I don’t even know how many people live there.”
“You think I want to go over there?” asked Kiley. “They scare me. But I’d rather take my chances with them than with a tornado, Anders.”
“What if they don’t let us in?” asked Anders.
“They have to,” said Kiley. “If they don’t and the tornado kills us, that would be on their consciences forever. They’ll understand that. And I’ll take a loaf of my banana bread with us to offer them.”
“All right,” said Anders. “Get your coat and your banana bread. Let’s go while it’s still relatively calm out.”
Five minutes later, Anders and Kiley stood knocking at the front door of the only other house within a mile in any direction. Their neighbor’s house was only 50 yards from theirs, the properties separated by a long, gravel driveway that they shared until it branched in opposite directions at the very end. Ander’s and Kiley’s branch of the driveway led into their attached two-car garage. The neighbors’ branch led to a large dirt patch occupied by four decrepit pick-up trucks and a filthy mini-van.
“Try the doorbell again,” said Kiley. Even though the night was warm and humid, Kiley hunched her shoulders inside of her brown coat. She held the loaf of banana bread, wrapped tightly in saran wrap, with both hands.
Anders pressed the doorbell with his thumb. He heard no sounds coming from inside the house. “I know they’re here,” said Anders. “All the cars are here and there were two guys out in the back yard less than an hour ago. Right before you saw the severe storm warning on TV.”
The evening was a darker shade of green. The wind was beginning to pick up again. The air felt odd, unquiet, calculating. It smelled like tornado weather. Exactly.
“Try knocking again,” said Kiley. The wind tossed her shoulder-length brown hair around her face.
Anders knocked. Nothing happened. “What now?” asked Anders. “Non-functional doorbell or ineffectual knocking?”
“Try the door knob,” said Kiley.
“Just walk in?” asked Anders. “Are you kidding?”
“You can poke your head in and yell something,” said Kiley.
“Yell what?” asked Anders. “‘Hey, it’s the neighbors you never talk to and always glare at and we’ve got some banana bread for you?’”
The porch light came on. The door opened. A man stood in the doorway with his left hand on the doorknob and his right hand tucked into the back pocket of his jeans, which looked as if they’d been through a fire. Behind him, the house was dark, though Anders could see a faint light coming from a room at the end of the hall. Anders and Kiley stood mute, caught unprepared for this moment.
“That bread for me?” asked the man. He appeared to be in his early thirties. Depending on how fast his facial hair grew, he hadn’t shaved for at least a couple of days. He wore big, clunky eyeglasses and his hair hung over his ears and down to the collar of his grimy flannel shirt.
“It is,” said Kiley, stepping forward and holding the banana bread out to the man. He didn’t take it.
“Funny time to be delivering bread,” he said.
“That’s not the main reason we’re here,” said Anders, stepping in before Kiley could get defensive. “I don’t know if you’ve heard, but we’re in a tornado warning right now. Until at least midnight, I think. We don’t have a basement, so we were wondering if you’d mind if we joined you in your basement until the warning’s over.”
“We’re not in the basement,” said the man.
“But you have a basement,” said Kiley. “Right? Did you not know about the warning?”
“We’re not worried,” said the man. “We’re busy with something else.”
Kiley looked at Anders and then up at the nearly-black sky. The wind was getting wilder, tenser.
“Listen,” said Anders. “Would you mind if we sat in your basement until the warning’s past? We wouldn’t cause any inconvenience for you. We’ll just sit down there and keep to ourselves and then go home when it’s all over. We can even let ourselves out.”
“No, no,” said Kiley. “No, we should all be down there together. It’s dangerous for the rest of you to stay upstairs.”
Anders scowled at Kiley. “You can’t make them sit in their own basement, Kiley. It’s their house, they can do what they want.”
“You really should join us,” Kiley said to the man. “I mean, if you decide to let us in. Which I pray you will.”
The man took off his glasses with his left hand and wiped at his eyes with the back of his right wrist. “You can sit in our basement,” he said. “But we don’t want the banana bread.”
Anders glanced at Kiley. She looked hurt. He reached out and squeezed her shoulder. “That’s perfectly fine with us,” said Anders. “We’re not here to force banana bread on anyone, that’s for sure.”
The man ushered Anders and Kiley into the house and closed the front door behind them. Then he led them to the immediate right through a doorway and into a dark room. Anders heard fumbling sounds coming out of the blackness just ahead of him and then an overhead light came on. The small room was neat and orderly, which Anders found surprising. There were four love seats arranged to face each other with enough space between them to allow easy access to the coffee table set in the center of the room. On the coffee table, there was an empty, red glass vase and a stack of library books. On the wall to the left was a large, framed, black and white photograph of a gleeful mob burning an effigy. There was a door on the far wall. The man led Anders and Kiley to the door and opened it. “Here’s the light switch,” he said, and he reached inside the door and flipped it, illuminating a narrow flight of wooden stairs leading down to the dark basement. The light came from a single bulb protruding from the wall just inside the door.
“You’re sure you don’t want to come down with us?” asked Kiley. “Just to be safe?”
“No,” said the man.
“What about the other people here?” asked Kiley. “Do you speak for them too?”
Anders went half way down the steps and then turned to look up at his wife. “Stop bothering him about it, Kiley.”
“If you change your mind,” said Kiley. “Then feel free to join us.”
“It’s his house!” said Anders. “It’s his basement! He’s not waiting for your invitation to use his own basement!”
The man didn’t react. He just stood with his hand on the doorknob, waiting for Kiley to move. Finally she stepped through the doorway and began to descend the steps. The man closed the door behind her.
“I’m just worried about them,” said Kiley. “Getting hit with a tornado can happen to anyone. They probably think it’ll never happen to them, but that’s what everyone who gets hit thinks.”
At the bottom of the stairs, Anders reached around the corner and found another light switch. He turned it on. “No wonder they don’t want to come down here,” said Anders. “There’s nothing here.”
He walked out into the middle of the bare, unfinished basement. Kiley followed, looking around skeptically. The floor was hard cement and the walls were cinder blocks. There were no windows or apparent escape routes at all, which had to be a fire code violation. The only thing in the basement other than Kiley and Anders was a roll of carpet resting against the far wall. “I guess that’s where we’re sitting,” said Anders. He and Kiley walked over to the roll of carpet and sat down on it next to each other, their backs against the cold wall, their legs sticking straight out.
“We should have brought books,” said Kiley, and then the lights went out and she and Anders were plunged into complete blackness.
“At least,” said Anders. “We can stop kicking ourselves about forgetting books.”
“What happened?” asked Kiley. Even though Anders could feel her leaning against him, her voice sounded further away than before the lights had gone out.
“The storm probably knocked out the power,” said Anders.
“They’ll probably come down here with us now,” said Kiley. “Maybe they’ll bring some candles.”
“Maybe,” said Anders. “Or they might just stay upstairs with their candles.”
“Do you really think they wouldn’t offer us even one candle?” asked Kiley.
“We don’t even know if they have candles,” said Anders. “This whole candle thing is based on groundless speculation.”
“It’s not groundless to assume that most people have candles in case of emergency,” said Kiley. “Especially in areas where there are a lot of thunderstorms and ice storms. Like here.”
“They’ve probably already forgotten we’re down here,” said Anders. “If anyone beyond that one guy even knew in the first place.”
Anders and Kiley sat in silence for a minute. Anders experimented with seeing his hand in front of his face. He couldn’t.
“Why aren’t they coming down?” asked Kiley. “It bothers me. It would be so easy for them to come down to their own basement with a few candles, but no. They’d rather risk their lives. For what?”
“You can’t force people to be cautious,” said Anders. In his mind, he silently added except for me.
Kiley shifted her position on the carpet-roll and Anders heard the crinkle of saran wrap. “Let’s have some of that banana bread.”
“It’s for them,” said Kiley.
“Come on, Kiley. They don’t want any banana bread. Let’s just eat it.”
“I want a candle,” said Kiley.
“Why?” asked Anders. “There’s nothing to see.”
“I’d feel better,” said Kiley. “Total darkness is too much. I want to be able to see you.”
“If you want a candle, you ask for it,” said Anders.
Kiley was silent for a moment. Then Anders felt her let go of his arm and heard her stand up.
“You’re really doing it?” asked Anders.
“I want a candle,” said Kiley.
Anders heard her take a few tentative steps out away from the wall. He pictured her shuffling along with her hands waving around in front of her, squinting her eyes as if that would help her see better. Kiley’s footsteps gradually got further away. “How’s it going?” asked Anders.
“Fine,” said Kiley. “I think I’m almost to the stairs.”
“If you want to come back, just tell me, and I’ll talk so you can follow the sound of my voice,” said Anders.
“Found them!” said Kiley, sounding proud.
“Make sure you use the handrail,” said Anders. “Don’t let go.”
Anders heard Kiley climb halfway up the stairs and stop. Then she shouted, “Sir! Sir! Could my husband and I have a candle? Please?” She paused and then Anders heard her go up three more steps. “Sir! Can you hear me?”
“They can’t hear you through the door,” said Anders.
Kiley said nothing.
“Just come back,” said Anders. “We don’t need a candle.”
There was a long pause, and then Anders heard Kiley climbing the last few steps to the door and pushing it open. “Sir? Hello?” Then the door slammed closed with a loud bang that reverberated through the basement. Anders jumped to his feet and took three quick steps out into the darkness. “Kiley?” There was no reply. “Kiley!” He took a few more steps, flailing his hands in front of him. He heard nothing except for his own sharp breath hissing in and out through his nostrils.
Then he heard another sound. A low rumble that became a deafening roar almost as soon as he noticed it. And then it was so loud, so overpowering, that Anders fell to his knees on the cold cement floor and clamped his arms around his head, shielding his ears with the insides of his forearms, but it wasn’t enough and the sound kept pummeling him until Anders thought the sound might have actually broken his skull. And then, all at once, the sound was gone. Anders took his arms away from his ears and rose to his feet. He realized his eyes were closed. He opened them and saw, somehow, a very faint quantity of light. He walked towards it, feeling a cold, wet wind on his face. When he got to the lighter area, he realized he was at the basement stairs. He could just make them out, rising before him. As he made his way up the steps, he felt rain on his head. He looked up and, with rain striking his face, he saw a kind of blackness that he slowly realized could only be the overcast night sky. He scrambled the rest of the way up the stairs, his feet slipping on the wet wood. At the top of the steps, Anders found no door, no Kiley, no neighbors, and no house. All that remained was the house’s foundation and the basement beneath it. The blowing rain stung Anders’ face. He looked across the driveway to his and Kiley’s house and saw that it was still there. The front window, lit from within, glowed merrily. Electric power had returned.
Anders sat on the couch in his living room, his back straight, his wet, muddy shoes planted flat on the carpet. The floor lamp next to the couch was still on. He and Kiley must have forgotten to turn it off when they left. Everything else was as they had left it too. Anders even heard the battery-powered radio transmitting static from its place on the kitchen table. Anders wondered if he’d eventually fall asleep right where he sat or if he’d stay awake forever unless he made a conscious decision to fall asleep.
Kiley was gone, sucked up and blown away by the tornado, and she was never coming back. Anders began to make a strange half-croaking, half-coughing sound. He’d never heard himself or anyone make such a sound before. He’d never suspected that his manifestation of true grief would be so ugly.
Kiley was gone.
Then Anders heard the glass double doors in the kitchen swing open, the soft pad of bare feet on the tile, and Kiley wasn’t gone. She was back, right there in the living room, beaming at Anders with a loaf of banana bread in her hands.
The half-croak, half-cough sound turned into just a cough as Anders struggled to speak. “Kiley!” He finally managed to say. Kiley stood looking at Anders from six feet away, a shy smile on her face. Anders remained seated on the couch.
“What are you wearing?” asked Anders.
“Do you like it?” asked Kiley. “I got it from the tornado.” Other than her brown coat, Anders couldn’t remember what Kiley had been wearing before. Probably jeans, a t-shirt, and her old tennis shoes, but certainly not the sleek, sparkling-silver, knee-length dress she wore now. Her feet were bare and a few blades of wet grass clung to them.
“What happened to your shoes?” asked Anders.
Kiley looked down at her feet, still smiling. “The tornado didn’t give me any.”
Anders kept expecting himself to jump up from the couch and embrace his wife, but as the seconds passed, it became clear that he wasn’t going to. Kiley’s smile began to look unsteady.
“I know that tornados do crazy things,” said Anders. “Pieces of straw driven into trees like nails. Babies found unharmed in fields. One house untouched and the neighbors’ house gone. I know about that stuff.”
“Yes!” said Kiley, the enthusiasm rekindling on her face. “Yes, Anders! But it’s so far beyond that! I can’t even describe how complicated it is. Everything whirling around in the air like that. It’s like the most complicated juggling you’ve ever seen but multiplied by, like...” she trailed off, thinking.
“A million?” asked Anders. “A billion?”
“Exactly!” said Kiley. “Multiplied by a billion.”
“I can’t picture it,” said Anders.
“I saw houses and cars and furniture and people and animals-”
“Anyone you knew?” asked Anders.
“Some,” said Kiley.
“I think so,” said Kiley. “People like them, anyway.”
“What happened to them?”
Kiley frowned. “I’m not exactly sure. Some of it was bad.”
“Bad how?” asked Anders.
“Violent,” said Kiley. “But not for me!” The smile was back. “It was so gentle with me.”
“It changed your clothes?”
Kiley nodded. “But that’s not all.” She held the banana bread out towards Anders with both hands. The saran wrap was gone and a slice was missing from the end of the loaf. “It took a piece, Anders. Just one. And it put me in a bed and rocked me to sleep and it left me in our own back yard. I just woke up a minute ago and came straight inside to tell you I’m fine.”
Anders didn’t know what to say.
“I’ll show you the bed,” said Kiley. She motioned with both hands for Anders to follow her. “Come on, Anders, I’ll show you now.”
Anders, his legs stiff, stood and followed his wife.
The cloud cover was gone. An almost-half-moon shone down on Anders and Kiley and the queen-sized bed resting on the grass at the back of their property. The bed was complete: frame, box-spring, mattress, sheets, comforter. The comforter was thrown back as Kiley had left it when she’d woken up and gone inside.
“See?” said Kiley. She was so happy. The dress the tornado had given her sparkled in the moonlight. It was a night-in-the-yard kind of dress.
Anders did see. He saw the bed. He also saw the wide swath of destruction the tornado had cut through the fields and trees leading right up to the very edge of his and Kiley’s property. Then it must have jumped.
“I recognize this bed,” said Anders.
“You do?” asked Kiley. “No you don’t. From where?”
“I don’t know,” said Anders. “But I know I’ve seen it before.”
“It’s ours now, though,” said Kiley. “The tornado gave it to me. It’s so comfortable, Anders. You’re going to love it.”
“It does look comfortable,” said Anders, but that wasn’t what he was thinking about. He was wondering if the previous owners’ bodies would ever be found.