A captivating, oft terrifying, short story ushering the reader into a darkened cellar as the sounds of an “invisible freight train that had descended from the heavens” orbits outside…
by: Tammy Dimitroff
The emergency alert system sounded like a fax machine on an open phone line. The dissonant notes blared through every smartphone, radio, and television in Summit County. There was a tornado warning in effect which, unlike a tornado watch, meant a funnel cloud had actually been spotted. I should have taken shelter, but like most Ohioans, tornado warnings drew me outdoors.
The trees towered twenty to thirty feet above the colonial homes that lined Northview Lane. They blocked out the sky, save for a thin strip directly above the road. I looked up at the strip. It was a dreary grey, though that’s common this close to Lake Erie.
“Ana, a tornado’s been spotted on the border of Cuyahoga Falls,” Craig, my husband, said. He stood in the doorway, his head bent low to catch a view of the sky beyond the front stoops’ roof.
“Which border?” I asked. We live in Stow, the neighboring town, the Cuyahoga Falls border only a few miles away.
“Not ours.” Our black lab, Bear, wriggled his head between my husbands’ legs, struggling to get out. “It’s heading our way, though,” Craig added. He widened his stance and Bear shot into the yard, heading to his favorite bush, a brittle evergreen that dropped yellow needles whenever Bear lifted his leg.
“Has it touched down?” I asked. Craig shook his head ‘no’ and we shared a meaningful look.
Big storms always bring false sightings of funnel clouds. You learn that growing up in Ohio where tornadoes are common, but not as common as false alarms. Never believe a tornado warning until one actually touches down or the sky turns green. Of course, I would never say that to anyone out loud. Those are “famous last words.” Words my neighbors would claim I said before the tornado took my house. They’d swear they saw me standing on the front porch while the siding was being ripped apart around me. Of course, the fact they were upstairs watching my house, instead of in the basement sheltering, would never be brought up.
Mrs. Graft, my right-side next-door neighbor hobbled down the cement stairs of her porch. She used a cane with a neon green tennis ball affixed to the bottom. Bear caught sight of the ball, his ears perking up. A few weeks ago, before a house showing, I was pulling the dandelion heads off the weeds in the front yard when Bear appeared, tail wagging his body. The bright green ball was in his mouth, the cane still attached and askew.
“No!” Craig said to Bear. He pointed to the stoop. “Bear come here,” His voice deep and loud, emphatic enough to pull the dog’s attention from the cane, strong enough for Mrs. Graft to turn and look. I waved tentatively; she frowned back before continuing down the driveway. She doesn’t like me much since the cane incident. It’s a shame, we had gotten along so well for the last seven years.
Craig hustled Bear inside as Mrs. Graft hobbled to the end of the street. Her home is on the corner of Northview Lane and Magnolia Avenue. Her two best friends live diagonally from her on Magnolia. They were making their way down their own driveways, one with a walker, the other without. They met in the center of the intersection, a spot Craig had nicknamed the Old Ladies’ Clubhouse years ago and was now referred to as just the Clubhouse by half the neighborhood. The ladies gestured to the sky, no doubt comparing this weather with that of previous storms.
“Have you heard anything?” Meg, the daughter of my other next-door neighbor, called from her porch. Meg had been living with her parents since she graduated from college. She was looking for a job in her field, but the waitress uniform she wore told me she wasn’t yet successful. She looked at me expectantly. Gossiping about the weather and telling battle stories has always been a favorite pastime around here.
“Someone spotted a funnel cloud,” I said. Meg leaned forward, interested. “But, it hasn’t touched down.” Her shoulders slumped, her interest waned.
“Oh,” She shrugged. “Well…”
I know how she would end that sentence if she actually had the nerve to say what most Ohioans are thinking, ‘That’s not a real tornado.’ But, like all people from these parts, she knows it’s bad luck to tempt fate.
We both fell silent and with the silence we noticed the wind had picked up. It sounded like a distant freight train. I glanced at the white post in the front yard, the one with the wooden ‘For Sale’ sign hanging from it, and the smaller metal ‘PENDING’ sign hanging beneath that. The sign was still, even the lightweight metal was motionless. The trees towering above my house gently swayed in a soft breeze, the invisible train roaring somewhere above them.
The front door creaked open. Craig had been watching the weatherman and was coming out to verify the report.
“How’s it looking?” Bear followed him, but Craig had put his collar on and gripped the blue nylon tightly. There would be no canes in the Labrador’s near future.
“Wind’s picking up,” I said. The Old Ladies’ Club had adjourned, each member returning home. Mrs. Graft glared at my small family standing on our stoop as she made her way back up the drive. “What’s the news say?” I asked, ignoring her.
“Still coming straight for us,” he replied. I started to ask the traditional follow-up question, but Craig cut me off. “No, it hasn’t touched down yet, but there have been more sightings.” He was going to suggest I come inside, I could tell. The weatherman had been overreacting, blowing things out of proportion the way they usually do, and Craig was worried. I could see it in his face, the way his forehead wrinkled. He could be so naïve about tornados, but then again, he didn’t grow up here.
“Does that look green to you?” Craig asked pointing to the strip of sky. I squinted.
“Looks gray to me,” I said. He sneered. He thought I was careless when it came to tornados.
“Are you coming in now,” Craig asked, but it wasn’t a question. I could feel an argument brewing. He’d been cranky lately, it was the stress of our move. I was no better. I should have been, but I found my hackles raise whenever he got into one of his moods. When I didn’t respond fast enough he asked again. I wanted to say ‘no’ just so he didn’t win, but if I said ‘no’ it would become a real argument and I didn’t feel like fighting.
“Can we play with Bear?” asked the oldest of the three kids that live behind our house. We could never remember their names so Craig and I called them the backyard kids. A glance at Craig showed he was becoming impatient. I turned to the girl with a smile, “Sure.”
Craig sighed, an exaggerated sigh, letting me know how upset he was but, I was already heading down the stairs with the dog. The oldest called to her two younger brothers, who were in the driveway three houses down watching.
“She said ‘yes!’” The boys picked up their bikes, mounting them at a run. Their mother is allergic to dogs, at least that’s the reason she gave for not having one. Their father said there’s no need for a dog when they could just play with mine. And they did, almost daily, sneaking through a hole they thought I didn’t know they made in the fence that separated our properties. The youngest wrapped his arms around Bear’s neck. The Lab stood still, taking the unwanted hug, staring at me for help.
A new kid trailed behind the boys. It was his house they came from. I felt guilty every time I saw him. His family moved into the house a month ago and I never introduced myself. I was probably the only person in the neighborhood who hadn’t brought over a baked good of some sort. But, then again, I was moving.
From the driveway, I watched the kids play with Bear. In the past, I had to tell them to be gentle with him, but the oldest had taken over that job. She no longer played with Bear, but instead came over to boss her siblings around.
Loose strands of hair from my ponytail tickled the back of my neck as I felt the wind shift. With the shift came the faint sound of the Cuyahoga Falls tornado siren, making the children and I freeze. We listened to the hollow call rise and fall with the wind. Bear, temporarily forgotten, licked the elbow of the youngest to get his attention.
A second after the Falls’ alarm sounded another siren started its’ slow wind-up. This one was closer, probably right on the border of Stow and Cuyahoga Falls, and louder, so much louder than the Falls’ alarm. The temperature suddenly dropped, causing a rash of goosebumps to break out on my arms.
The sky had changed to a sickly yellow-green, a green that reminded me of the tornado that hit my neighbor’s house when I was a kid. It was lower, the haze nearly touching the top of the tree canopy as if the sky meant to crush us. How had the storm come on so fast? Only a few seconds had passed since the Falls’ siren sounded and yet it felt as if the tornado was already there.
“Is your Mom home?” I asked the kids. This was expected of me. Expected of every woman in Ohio once she reached a certain age. Even if you’re not a mother, when it comes to the neighborhood children, you mother. The backyard kids said ‘yes’ immediately, they’ve grown up like I did, with a neighborhood full of moms. They understood what’s expected of them. The new kid, however, remained silent, distrustful. I heard his family was from out of state. “If your parents aren’t home you need to tell me.” I say to him. I’m not going to have some scared kid sitting in his basement alone while a tornado rages above.
“They’re there,” The big sister answers for him.
“Time for you to go home,” I say, but my words are drowned out by Stow’s main tornado siren winding up. The siren’s only a block away and so loud I have to yell to be heard. Grabbing the oldest by the shoulders, I shouted into her ear.
“Cut through my backyard,” I pointed to the steep slope that bordered the side of the house. She looked at me wide-eyed and scared. I could have let them shelter at my house, but then their parents would have been terrified. Their mom might have done something stupid, like go looking for her kids while the tornado ripped through the neighborhood. Best to send them home. “Watch out for your brothers, make sure you don’t leave them behind.”
The girl nodded her head a little too forcefully. Her eyes watering from fear or maybe from the weight of sudden responsibility for her brothers. I shouldn’t have put her in this position. I should have sent the kids home as soon as they asked to play with Bear. Why didn’t I just send them home?
The oldest grabbed her bike, her brothers following her lead. She gestured frantically to the new kid, pointing at his house telling him to go home. He stood plastered to the spot looking terrified. It must have been his first tornado. For a moment I wondered if he would move or if I’d have to carry him home, but finally, he took off running, the wind plastering his clothes to his body.
I followed the children to the corner of my house, to a spot where I could watch both the new kid and the backyard kids make their way home. When Bear tried to chase after the bikes I grabbed his collar, almost missing, catching the nylon by my fingertips.
The backyard kids rode down the slope, a slope so steep Craig had to use a weed-wacker to mow it. The slope I’ve tumbled down on at least two painful occasions. But, the kids were fearless, flying down the hill, speeding across the backyard, sending a spray of dirt and grass at the fence as they skidded to a halt. They dropped their bikes on the lawn and squeezed through the hole in the wooden slats.
Their mom opened the screen door as her children ran across the backyard. She herded them into the house before giving me an all-clear wave. Small strands of hair whipped painfully at my face. I swiped them away, struggling to see the new kid’s progress through my tangle of hair. He’d reached his garage disappearing inside as the aluminum door started to roll down.
“The backyard kids just ripped up the lawn,” Craig yelled into my ear. I jumped and swore. The wind and the siren were so loud I hadn’t heard him approach. Didn’t even know he was outside till I felt his moist breath in my ear.
“Didn’t mean to startle you,” Craig grabbed Bear’s collar from me. “We need to go inside.” A small white ball of hail bounced off his shoulder in an exaggerated arc, as if it were made of rubber. It landed in the grass. Bear stretched against his collar to sniff it. I point at the ball of ice.
“Did you see…” I started to say, but the air was suddenly full of stinging hail, landing upon me with such force it left welts on my skin with each icy impact. We rushed to the porch, Bear pulling Craig ahead of me, but the wind was faster. It pushed past us, flinging the door open, an invisible intruder.
“Get the door,” Craig yelled once we were inside. I tried to do just that, but the wind pushed back, refusing to be locked out. I put my shoulder into it, dug my heels into the rug as it slid across the hardwood floor. Craig joined me and the door reluctantly shut, reducing the winds’ roar to a growl. With the door closed the house suddenly felt unnaturally still.
“Look at the sign,” Craig pointed out the window. One of the hooks on the wooden ‘For Sale’ sign was unlatched, the heavy plank whipped about in the wind, at times almost parallel to the ground. The smaller metal ‘PENDING’ sign was gone, lost to the storm. I’ve seen enough.
“We need the flashlight,” I say, heading to the kitchen, “the heavy-duty one.” Craig followed. In the kitchen, he rummaged through the junk drawer, pulling out the red flashlight and then for good measure the free penlight we got when we re-upped our home insurance. My tablet was charging on the counter with my cell phone. I’d missed three calls, though I didn’t have to look to know they were from my mom.
“I’ll get the water jug,” Craig said. He tucked the flashlights in his cargo shorts. I grabbed the tablet and cell. I was looking around, searching for anything else we might need, when the kitchen window caught my eye. It was dark outside, as if the sun had set in the time it took us to walk down our front hall. Silhouettes of flying debris danced across the glass, though it was too dark to make out what they were.
My cell rang, Mom again. My parents still lived in my childhood home about twelve miles away. They could probably hear Stow’s sirens, though I doubted they were experiencing any of the weather.
“What’s it like over there?” Mom asked by way of hello. I opened the basement door for Craig and Bear, then followed them downstairs.
“It’s not looking so good,” I said. Our basement was renovated in the seventies, the carpet avocado shag, the walls faux-wood paneling, yet another part of the house I never got around to re-decorating. “How is it for you?” I asked. I could hear murmuring over the phone; no doubt my parents and their neighbors had assembled outside to discuss the storm.
“It’s fine. It’s heading away from us so…” Mom paused. I heard Dad’s low grumble somewhere nearby. “Your father thinks we’re going to get a little rain.” She relayed.
The only furniture in the basement was our old kitchen table set. We replaced it right before we found out about the relocation. Hail hit the windows, the collision echoing in the aluminum window wells as we took a set at the table. Bear pushed his way between the chairs to lay on my feet. It started to rain, big slushy drops accompanying the hail.
“Karen says a tornado has touched down not far from you,” my mom continued, pulling me back into our conversation. Beside me, Craig used the tablet to search for the local news website. “She wants to know if you’re in the basement.” Karen’s one of the neighborhood moms I grew up with, still mothering after all these years.
Craig found the website, it was live-streaming the weather, a map of our town filled the screen. A digital image of a multi-colored cloud twisted over Stow stopped and jerked back to its starting position.
“We’re in the basement,” I say, but the phone beeped in my ear. I looked at the screen, call lost — no bars. “Cell phones are down,” I told Craig.
“Probably lost a tower,” he replied. There was a loud bang, possibly an explosion, outside and the power went out. I clicked the flashlight on. At least the internet was still up. Craig installed a battery backup the previous year, though he couldn’t remember if he had recharged the batteries since the last blackout. “Doesn’t matter now,” he said, turning the tablet’s volume to full. We leaned forward to hear the weatherman over the storm.
“We have reports of a tornado touching down near Graham Road in Stow,” the weatherman said. Craig put a hand on my thigh and squeezed, our street dead-ended into Graham. “Those viewers in Stow should seek shelter immediately.” The weatherman continued with the familiar tornado safety spiel while pictures of the funnel cloud emailed to the station by viewers flashed across the screen.
We silently watched until the backup battery died and with it the internet. The screen froze on an image of the tornado, a dark funnel cloud behind a white church. I recognized the church, it was less than a mile from our house. We stared at the frozen tornado guessing which direction it looked like it was heading until the tablet went to sleep.
The flashlight cast a small circle of light, light that didn’t seem strong enough to fight off the darkness and the storm that lurked outside. Above us, rain fell in sheets on the darkened neighborhood. Debris tumbled across lawns, colliding with homes, the bangs echoing through the empty rooms above. The dark houses abandoned, as my neighbors hid underground, clustered around their own dim circles of light.
Craig and I sat in silence, listening to the invisible freight train that had descended from the heavens to circle our home. Listening as the rain beat against the house’s foundation, listening as the wooden beams creaked and moaned and threatened to give in to the storm. Unconsciously, we scooted our chairs closer together until our thighs touched, our arms interlocked, holding onto one another in a vain attempt at comfort.
The window well filled with water; it was a quarter of the way up the glass, though the window held. I tried to think of a way to keep the water out, but the basement was practically empty. There was nothing I could use to stop the flood if the window broke. Nothing we could do, so I tried not to look at it. Instead, I focused on Craig’s warm thigh pressed against my cold one. I focused on Bear, who had wedged himself between my legs, his head resting on my lap. I focused on the deep scratch that ran down the center of the table. I focused on anything that was not the raging storm, my creaking house, the water in the window, or the image that was still burned into my retina of the tornado and the church. Anything, but my helplessness.
Time passed, though in the dark it was hard to know how much time. The freight train moved on; the sirens wound down. Lightning flashed in spits and spurts. Eventually, the electricity flickered back on. We took it as a signal it was safe to go upstairs. In the kitchen, the appliances blinked a green ’12:00′ as we dropped the flashlights and electronics on the counter before heading for the front stoop.
We were the last of the neighbors to venture outside. The rest had already congregated on the sidewalk, many pointing at the street.
“What are they looking at?” I asked Craig, but before he could answer lightning flashed, illuminating the tiny rapids and waves of a river that had suddenly materialized in the middle of the street. We joined the neighbors. Bear stood silhouetted in the living room window behind us, barking at being left alone.
“How’d you all do?” Craig asked Meg’s father. I didn’t hear his response, but I did hear my neighbor’s good-natured laugh as he clapped Craig on the back. I waved to an acquaintance across the street, she stood with another small group of neighbors, her husband at her side, a baby monitor in hand. She smiled and waved back as the rest of her group broke out in laughter.
“How’d that dog of yours do during the storm?” Surprised, I turned. Mrs. Graft and her husband had hobbled over; she brought her cane, though the tennis ball had been removed.
“He spent most of the storm trying to crawl on my lap.” I said. I smiled, but it was a wary smile. She squeezed my arm.
“He’s a good boy,” She said and with that, I knew Bear and I had been forgiven for the cane incident. I took Mrs. Graft’s arm and help her to the small circle of neighbors congregating in Meg’s parents’ driveway.
“Can you believe this?” Meg said, pointing to the street-river.
“We’ve lived here forty years and we’ve never seen anything like this,” Mr. Graft replied.
“That’s not true,” his wife countered, waving her cane to emphasize her point. “What about the hundred-year flood summer.” That was all it took, suddenly everyone had a storm story to recount. When the new kid’s parents joined the group, the entire conversation was repeated for their benefit. There were a lot of exaggerations, a lot of false bravadoes, and a lot of laughter.
It was close to eleven when the neighbors started heading home. The river had disappeared into the sewer, leaving the street littered with last year’s leaves, this year’s mulch, and the occasional plastic potted plant. Craig and I headed home, past the battered ‘For Sale’ sign, the sight of which left a dull ache in my chest.
The next morning the news showed pictures of a few homes a mile away with roofs torn off and trees felled. It was a minor tornado, with no casualties and little damage.
Bear and I walked the neighborhood. Magnolia Avenue didn’t fare as well as our street. Molding furniture, rolled-up carpets, and collapsing cardboard boxes covered the devil strip, at times spilling into the street. The garbage had already started to smell musty, like mildew. We walked in the middle of the road trying to avoid tripping over the wet furniture. My neighbors must have stayed up all night emptying their flooded basements.
I nodded toward a tired-looking man as he dropped the last of his destroyed possessions on the roadside. He gave me a tired half-smile, still neighborly even after the night he’d had. It’s an Ohio thing, I’m sure of it.
Two blocks away I found the metal ‘PENDING’ sign laying on the seat of a discarded corduroy sofa. I wondered if the wind blew it all that way or if it was the water. I brought the sign home, reattaching it beneath the ‘For Sale’ sign with zip ties.
Mrs. Graft stood at the edge of her driveway, a newspaper wrapped in orange plastic in hand, watching me attach the ‘PENDING’ sign. When our eyes met, she gave me a tight almost sad smile. That’s when I realized it was time to start saying goodbye.
Two days later, Mrs. Graft came over to give Bear a going-away present: a sleeve of tennis balls. She had to compete with the backyard kids who tried to soak up as much dog time as possible. I watched my old neighbor and the kids through the kitchen window as I wrapped dishes in brown packing paper. Meg came over with a sausage casserole from her mother. I made them a pasta casserole when Meg’s father was in the hospital for a bypass, they were returning the favor.
Later, Craig, my parents, their neighbor Karen, and I ate the casserole with plastic forks, the paper plates balanced in our laps as we sat on the living room furniture, boxes piled high around us. We laughed as Bear frantically ran between us searching for dropped food. There in that cramped room, surrounded by family, my heart felt full — at least for a little while. Then I caught my father watching me, his blue eyes glazed with tears, and I remembered that in the morning the moving truck would arrive and sweaty men in matching navy shirts would begin to empty my home.
The next afternoon, after the moving men left, I walked through the house, surprised by how the empty rooms suddenly echoed. I checked the closets one last time, looked through cabinets I knew to be empty. Stalling perhaps, as I said goodbyes to my home. Eventually, I followed Craig out of the house, watching as he locked the front door and slipped the key through the mail slot.
We climbed in our car. Bear whimpered excitedly in the backseat, as we backed out of the driveway for the last time and drove down our street. This is no longer my neighborhood, I thought. Mrs. Graft, Meg, the backyard kids are no longer my neighbors, and this tiny corner of Ohio, the only home I have ever known is no longer my home. My heart hurt. I grabbed Craig’s hand and tried to focus on our new life as the old one disappeared behind.
Tammy Komoff’s work has recently appeared in Bards and Sages Quarterly and All Worlds Wayfarer. She lives in the Orlando area with her husband and their two girls. She attends the MFA program at the University of Central Florida. For more of Komoff’s work or to contact her visit www.tammykomoff.com.