Excerpt — July
Three splintering blasts, followed by a short pause, repeated twice more. My ears are still ringing and, shading my eyes with my hand, I scan the blue sky above. Far to the north I see a dark tide of clouds rushing in.
Name as many possible uses for a stick as you can.
Answers include, but are not limited to, the following: walking stick, spear, fishing rod, garden pole, firewood, baseball bat, bow, digging tool.
I take off running up the little hill to our house. It sits on the highest point of our half-acre property, at the top of six-foot concrete risers. I fly up the steps, leap onto the porch, and tear open the door. My phone is playing two lines from the song “Big Yellow Taxi” over and over again, and I know Mom must be frantic with worry on the other end. I grab the phone from the table and accidentally knock over my mug. Cold tea pours out and rushes off the side of the table. I press talk and her worried face fills the small screen.
“Tic, did you hear it?”
“Yes, Mom,” is all I can manage to get out as I catch my breath.
“I was so afraid when you didn’t pick up right away!”
“I was just out in the garden. Three, right?”
“Yes, three. I’m at work still. Maybe I should try to come home. I don’t want you there all by yourself.”
I go over to the front window while we talk and see that the branches and leaves of my tree, the maple that Mom planted when I was born, the one I love to sit in while I read, are all waving frantically. I turn away from it. “No, Mom, it’s fine. You need to stay there. It takes too long to get home, and the wind is picking up already.”
“Don’t worry about me. We’ve been through plenty of threes before. There’s nothing to be nervous about. I’ll be safe here, I promise. It’s not like it’s a four or a five.” I reassure Mom even as I wipe a sweaty palm against my thigh. I have never actually been alone during a three. I’ve been at school or work with other people or here at home with Mom. It’s like she can read my mind.
“Tic, I can’t stand it that you are there alone. I want you to run next door to Uncle Al’s house. It shouldn’t take you more than five minutes to get there and I’ll feel better knowing you’re with him.”
“Really, Mom,” I start to object half-heartedly, but she’s not having it.
“Tic, it’s not up for discussion.” The next round of sirens blast over anything else I might want to say and we hang up. I shove the phone in my back pocket.
I make sure that all the shatterproof windows and doors are closed tight. Ruthie watches me from under the table. I think about leaving her here—I am sure it’s safe—but she looks so pathetic that I just can’t bring myself to. I stand by the front door calling her, but she stays put. The big beast is terrified. I hunt desperately for her leash, which could be anywhere since we usually just let her run around outside without it. Uncle Al is our only neighbor, and he doesn’t care. No one else is crazy or desperate enough to live way out here so close to the Edge. Finally, I find the leash in the knitting basket, of all places, and hook it to Ruthie’s collar. I wrap the other end securely around my left hand. Then I yank hard, meaning business, and she reluctantly gets up.
Once outdoors, I look at the sky. I’m not sure how much time has passed since Mom and I hung up, but the heavy dark clouds have already blanketed the midday sky and it’s as dark as dusk. I consider going back into the house but figure I have enough time to get over to Uncle Al’s if I’m quick. My first thought is to go up to the road, but the speed the storm is moving makes me reconsider. There is a shortcut through a grove that separates our garden from Uncle Al’s back pasture. It will be even darker in there and I don’t know when the path was last cleared, but I still think it will be faster. It will bring us out closer to the barn than the house, but if I don’t think we can make it to the house, the barn is a good, safe option. Ruthie stays right up against my side, her head rubbing my hip as we jog. The siren continues at regular intervals, and loud shots of thunder echo in the empty space in between. Blue flashes of lightning split the ominous grey sky and cast long, bizarre shadows around us.
I have to push against the wind, leaning into it. Leaves and branches tear free and tumble through the air around us. We are almost to the grove when I am smacked on the cheek by something the wind has picked up, a broken branch or a garden stake probably. It happens so fast that I don’t really see. My cheek stings, and when I touch it my hand comes away with blood. I stop for a second and gently touch the sore area around the cut on my cheek, probing for further damage with my fingertips. Ruthie barks and starts to strain at the leash trying to pull me back towards our house.
“Okay dog, okay. I get the message. Being out here’s not safe, but Mom wants us to go to Uncle Al’s so that’s what we are going to do,” I tell her trying to sound confident.
The next bang of thunder brings the rain. It pounds down from the sky, soaking through my clothes. It is relentless and furious, and we sprint for the trees. The smaller bushes grab at my shirt and scratch my legs as I stumble beneath the leafy canopy. Here at least the wind does not exert its full force, and the chaos of the storm is muffled. I catch my breath, and I feel tiny under the towering beeches and pines whose tops have disappeared into the storm clouds. When I was little I nicknamed this thicket the dark woods and thought it was a deliciously scary place ruled over by a goblin king. The “woods” is no more than one hundred yards straight across, but straight across would be impossible in this dense, tangled copse where vine maple criss-crosses skunk bush and ghostly lichen coats fallen branches and stumps. Years ago, Uncle Al cleared a path through it so that we could cross between our properties more quickly. Every few months he comes out with an axe to hack away the plant life that wants to reclaim our path.
It’s black as a starless night under here. I pull my phone from my pocket and turn on its flashlight. Holding it in my right hand, I point it at the ground in front of me and am able to make out and skirt the vines growing onto the path and the branches that have already fallen across it. We make steady, careful progress. I figure we are about half way through when a violent boom tears the air in the trees overhead, followed by a splintering sound. A crashing noise rushes at me, and suddenly I feel a searing pain like nothing I have ever known before surge through my right shoulder. I sink to my knees, my left hand clutching my right arm, which now hangs throbbing and limp. A thick, splintered branch lies beside me, its jagged end stabbing the earth. I pull myself away from its leafy embrace and kneel soaked, shivering, and caked with mud.
My breath is coming out in raspy, choked sobs. Ruthie licks my face with patient concentration. I let go of my right arm and wrap my left arm around Ruthie instead, pulling her into me. Her warmth and steady breathing help, and I know I have to get up. I have to push on. It’s dark and I realize that my phone is missing. I must have dropped it when the branch fell on me. I grope around with my left hand hoping to feel its smooth, familiar form but find only sharp rocks and sticks. Resigned to darkness, I pull myself up using a nearby birch tree and stand uncertainly. I let Ruthie guide me as I cautiously shuffle my feet.
We come out of the strand to a familiar, wide-open field where I once more feel the full force of the wind slamming into me. Rain pelts me viciously, seeming to fall horizontally, trying like mad to get in my mouth and nose and drown me. I know Al’s north-west pasture well and though it’s muddy we cross it quickly. At the far end is the hill. On the highest point of Uncle Al’s property is the barn where he keeps his prize-winning cattle. Even as I struggle forward, I can picture the ocean, whipped by the storm, pouring through the high mesh fence of the Edge. The rainwater rushing down the hill to meet us is nothing by comparison.
We climb up the hill towards the barn, every step a battle against the wind, water, and mud. Finally my feet shuffle onto the lip of an angled metal ramp and the barn towers over Ruthie and me on its risers, its grey, weathered wood a sanctuary against the dark sky. Flooded with relief, I practically launch myself at the barn door. The door stubbornly stays closed as I rest my bleeding cheek against the smooth, worn wood. I gather my strength and push off from the door, pulling the handle as hard as I can with my left hand. Nothing. It doesn’t budge. I force myself to slow down, to calm my rising panic, to breathe, and to think. I look closer now and see that a four-by-four oak beam rests on iron U-hooks on either side of the door effectively blocking it should the cows panic and try to get out. I unwind the leash from my left hand and drop it. I try to lift or slide the beam with my left hand alone but it’s too heavy and I can’t get it to budge.
Tears mix freely with rain on my face, and I put both hands under one end of the beam. I scream with the effort and the agony as I raise the beam a few inches, just over the top of the hook, before letting it crash down, sending vibrations shimmying up through my feet, my right arm on fire. The beam lies diagonally, one end still in the hook and the other resting by my feet on the metal ramp. A few quick, one-handed tugs on the door shove the beam down the slick ramp enough and I am able to slip into the barn. I collapse in a heap on the dry wood planks. The cows chew their cud and look at us as Ruthie lies down beside me. Everything hurts and I long for Mom’s soothing voice. I can almost hear her singing softly as I fall into an exhausted sleep.