The sky was too dark for five o'clock in the afternoon, and
the sultry air stalled outside the kitchen window held a threat
of rain. A little water would be good for the grass and flowers,
but unfortunate for Coach Adam Barrett's end-of-school barbecue.
I took the last sheet of oatmeal cookies out of the oven,
set them on the counter to cool and glanced outside. A storm
was definitely on the way. Adam would have to use the broiler
instead of the gas grill and move the party indoors.
I had an hour to bathe and dress, after which I'd pack the
cookies in the car and drive across town to Adam's house.
Everything was nicely under control, except for the weather.
It was growing more ominous every minute, and I thought I
could hear a faraway rumbling, but nothing else. For a Friday
afternoon, it was unusually quiet in the neighborhood.
It was time to bring my collie, Halley, inside. She isn't
afraid of thunderstorms but doesn't like to get her thick
black coat wet.
I pushed the three trays of cookies I'd already baked to
the center of the table and moved quickly through the house
to my bedroom and the adjoining porch at the back. Here the
air trapped between the eight screens made this outside space
almost as hot as the kitchen.
Halley was there before I could call her, front paws on the
second step, dark eyes bright and alert as she peered inside,
waiting for me. As soon as I opened the door, she dashed past
me into the bedroom and jumped up on the bed.
Belatedly it occurred to me that I should listen to the weather
report. Since May there had been numerous warnings and watches,
but storms seldom reached Oakpoint, Michigan, when they were
supposed to; and I no longer took them as seriously as I should.
Today might well be different.
Halley sprang off the bed and followed me into the living
room, padding along close behind me, panting heavily. She
ran to her toy basket and then to the kitchen table, where
the oatmeal-cinnamon scent was strong and enticing, but the
cookies were beyond her reach. With a plaintive little whine,
she ran to the front door and then back to the porch again.
Clearly she didn't know where she wanted to go. Her antics
usually amused me, but now they added to my growing sense
I pressed the television power button, and the picture came
into sharp focus. The funnel cloud logo at the bottom of the
screen and the sight of grim-faced weather forecaster confirmed
what I already suspected. He was standing next to a map of
Michigan and pointing to a red arrow that zigzagged its way
from Maple Falls down to Oakpoint.
As the sudden blare of the siren drowned out the audio, I
turned up the volume and quickly registered crucial information.
At four thirty a tornado had touched down about three hundred
miles north of Oakpoint in Maple Falls, leaving at least four
confirmed dead. Tornadoes were forming all over the state.
One was moving rapidly toward Oakpoint, and funnel clouds
had already been sighted only a mile west of my street. My
house was right in its path.
We repeat: A tornado warning is in effect for all of southeastern
Michigan. Take shelter in the basement . . .
For my dog and me, this wasn't an option. Like my last collie,
Halley refuses to go down the curving stairway, and I wouldn't
leave her upstairs alone.
I reached down and felt through the long white fur on her
neck for her chain.
Everybody should take cover immediately.
Hastily, allowing myself no time to think, I grabbed her
leash from the hook in the kitchen, attached it to the last
link and dragged her with me toward the back of the house.
Since we couldn't go downstairs, the safest place for us to
shelter from the tornado was the small narrow hall between
the two bedrooms, with the doors closed, away from the windows.
"Halley, Sit!" I said. "Stay!"
She obeyed me but within seconds was up again, straining
on the leash, trying to go back into the kitchen, where her
crate was. I pressed down on the top of her shoulders, repeated
my command and slipped the leather loop over my wrist up to
Then I sat down beside her and said as calmly as I could,
"That's a good girl. It's all right."
The siren was still wailing, drowning out every other sound
in the world, except for my dog's heavy breathing and the
pounding of my heart.
As I stroked her head, she trembled, or perhaps it was my
hand shaking. My fingers were numb and cold in spite of the
heat. Not even the soft fur could warm them.
"Don't be afraid, Halley. Nothing's going to happen."
I didn't believe what I was saying, and I knew I was communicating
my fear to her but couldn't hide the panic that was closing
in on me. I was the one in need of reassurance.
I always thought a tornado would naturally touch down elsewhere
and was foolish enough to act as though I were invincible.
Today I'd ignored nature's signals and left my dog outside
in the back yard, while the deadly funnel cloud whirled its
way toward my house.
I should have turned on the television when I first became
aware of the strange, oppressive heat and the darkening sky,
but at this point recrimination was futile. Here in the hall,
we were as safe as we were going to be.
Now, what else could I do? I tried to concentrate, but my
thoughts were running together like wax melting down into
I remembered my mother's tradition of lighting a blessed
candle during a severe storm. There was a box of them somewhere
in the house. I suppose I'd packed it with the rest of her
possessions up in the attic after her death.
You don't want anything burning. Stay calm, and maybe it'll
miss us. Think about something else.
There was a composition I used to assign to my English students.
Sometimes I did it along with them. If the world was going
to end, and you could save only twelve things, what would
I'd choose my family photograph albums. Scattered throughout
the house, with mere minutes remaining until the tornado arrived,
they might as well be on another planet. My old-time mystery
books were in the basement, along with my diaries and journals,
the years of my past preserved on paper. They were equally
My jewelry case was only a few feet away on the dresser behind
the closed bedroom door, but I could buy more necklaces, pins,
bracelets and rings.
There was only one thing I couldn't replace, and I was holding
on to her right now.
The tornado will be in Austin at five fifteen, in Deer Lake
at five thirty, in Oakpoint at...
As the power failed, the newscaster's voice was cut off in
mid-sentence, and we were plunged into a deep and deadly silence.
It wouldn't be long now. I wrapped my arms around Halley's
body and buried my face in her warm fur.
There was a roaring sound like that of a thousand winds or
trains bearing down on me, gaining in intensity, until the
only reality was the great spiraling cloud of blackness. It
was a force beyond my comprehension. I couldn't see it, but
I felt the power of its presence as it slammed into the earth.
But I still had Halley. We were together.
Overhead a tremendous crash split the ground apart. An uprooted
tree fell through the roof, and a shower of shingles and splinters
rained down on me. Walls collapsed like partitions in a cardboard
dollhouse, leaving a portion of the interior exposed to the
Thick, punishing sheets of rain and jagged objects battered
me. I heard the shattering of glass in the living room as
the picture window burst, each individual shard mixing with
the flying debris.
I held on to my dog. She was crying in terror, almost screaming,
and struggling to free herself from her restraint. The loop
of the leash bit into my flesh, leaving searing bands of pain
on my arm. She almost pulled me off balance, toward the damaged
bedroom, where the door tottered, secured by only one hinge.
With a great effort, I brought her back to me, to the center
of the hall.
I thought the worst was over now, and in the brief time of
quiet that followed, I kept repeating her name and petting
her. Gradually, her body relaxed. Beneath my breast, my heartbeats
slowed; but I was still cold, and the rain was falling, slanting
in through the broken section of roof.
I leaned against the wall and tried to summon the energy
I was going to need. I felt as if the tornado had picked me
up and hurled me down again, draining my body of its essence.
One of Halley's long hairs stuck to my lower lip, and I brushed
it away. Then with my hand, I swept aside bits of plaster
and wood, pieces of my house.
"It's all over, girl," I said.
The funnel cloud had touched down and passed by, leaving
us alive. I wasn't going to ask for more. In a minute, I'd
thank God for sparing my life, assess the damage, begin the
clean up and go on, in that order. That's all I could do.
Setting my hand firmly on the doorknob of the linen closet,
I pulled myself up, taking Halley with me, and forced myself
to look beyond the broken door at the wreck that had been
a cozy bedroom and spacious living room.
It was the giant poplar in the center of the yard that had
fallen, pushing down walls, squashing furniture in its path
and filling the space with silvery trunk, deadwood and bright
green foliage, most of it still attached to branches.
Our safe place in the hall had spared us from a similar fate,
but if we'd been closer to the bedroom, a mere six feet, we'd
be trapped under the tree now, or maybe dead. Since the eastern
half of the house had escaped major damage, the situation
was bad but not hopeless.
Still holding on to Halley, I made my way across a high barrier
of wood into the living room, walking where I could. The sofa,
coffee table, television and my favorite chair were smashed.
The heavy mahogany buffet, beyond the path of the poplar,
had survived, although the delicate crystal lamp and Royal
Doulton figurines I kept on top were fragments strewn on the
Miraculously, my mother's antique crystal candelabrum was
still there. Probably the oldest and most fragile object in
the house, all it was missing was one candle.
In the kitchen, the chairs were overturned, and the floor
was littered with acrylic trays and oatmeal cookies, some
whole, others broken in chunks or reduced to crumbs. Sniffing
something delicious, her recent terror forgotten, Halley lunged
forward and began to gobble cookie bits scattered among pieces
of broken glass. This fresh source of danger to my dog brought
me abruptly back to reality.
"No, Halley, leave it!"
Quickly, I pulled her away, and she came reluctantly, licking
her chops; but then she spied her crate in the corner and
"That's a good idea," I said.
I unsnapped her leash; and she crawled inside, turned around
once and lay down, with her front paws crossed, secure in
her own sanctuary.
Through the broken glass of the kitchen window, I saw my
white Taurus in the driveway. Although its body was splattered
with fallen leaves and twigs, it was still intact. I would
have transportation. That was one more thing to be thankful
In the living room, I touched the wall in search of the lost
connection. A house can stand for many lifetimes or fall apart
in minutes. Although the power was out, the cuckoo clock was
still on the wall and running. It was five forty-five.
I opened the front door, stepped out onto the front porch
and stood under the awning. It was raining lightly now, and
the thunder was in the distance, toward the east. The top
of my poplar, so high that I hadn't seen it in years, had
come to rest on my front lawn, its uppermost branches blocking
the sidewalk. I wasn't the only one on Elmwood to lose a tree.
Across the street, a five-forked maple had fallen across three
cars parked at the curb, flattening them into tin silhouettes.
My house appeared to be the most seriously damaged, except
for the four new Victorian style condominiums on the corner.
They were gone.
Along with branches, the neat lawns and walks and even the
street were littered with an eclectic collection gathered
by the tornado on its rampage of destruction. Lawn furniture,
trashcans, a concrete fawn, a doll, a tricycle, an empty pizza
box and the 'For Sale' sign from my neighbor's yard lay where
the wind had flung them, in flowerbeds and on paved walks.
There was a handmade birdhouse on the brick path that led
to my car. Years ago, my father had nailed it to the tree.
Time passed, the poplar grew and countless birds made their
nests inside. I picked it up and held it, wondering why I
didn't hear a single twittering or cawing. Come to think of
it, where were the squirrels and the family of wild cats that
lived in the overgrown yard behind my house?
I was no longer alone on Elmwood. Up and down the street,
people were coming out of their houses, some running, others
standing, as if in a stupor, as I suppose I was. Somewhere
down the street a child was crying, and I heard a dog barking.
It was Halley, shut inside her crate, not wanting to miss
any more of the action.
A siren blared, a fire engine this time, and as I looked
down the street at the intersection, I saw that the Oakpoint
Police Department had arrived. Three squad cars blocked the
area where the condominiums had been. Above in the sky whirred
the Channel Five Storm Chopper that until now I had only seen
on the television screen.
Today we were the news.
* * * *
"My God, Jen! It's like a war zone around here."
My friend, Leonora, stared at the scene in horror. I didn't
realize the extent of the devastation yet, even though I must
have been looking at it for a long time. She'd materialized
in the drizzle a few minutes go, her clothing damp and her
short blonde hair curling in a way she normally would never
allow. So far she hadn't said much, only variations of the
"When I saw those condos - that pile or rubble, I mean,
I didn't know what I'd find..."
Leonora is a fellow English teacher at Marston High School.
She is a supportive and cheerful person who brings her own
brand of optimism to any situation. I didn't know what anybody
could say or do to make this one better, but having her with
me made a great difference.
"I hope nobody was killed there," I said. "I
haven't seen any ambulances on the street. Maybe the people
I wasn't used to seeing space where the condominiums were.
Last year, two grand old Victorians on deep double lots had
been demolished so that the new houses could be built on the
property. At first I'd deplored the so-called progress but
eventually had to admit that the interlopers were attractive
and imaginatively landscaped. Then the tornado came and blasted
them into sawdust.
I lived only eight houses away from the corner, but I didn't
want to think about that now. "Where did you leave your
car?" I asked.
"I walked. I was worried about you and couldn't call.
Don't even try to use the phone or drive. There are downed
trees and power lines everywhere. They're saying that Oakpoint
was the hardest hit, after Maple Falls. That was the worst.
Four people are dead there."
"So I heard, before the power went out. How are things
in your part of town?"
"Not as bad as they are here, nothing but branches around
my house. At the school, the gym and cafeteria were damaged.
Thank heavens it's summer vacation. A few kids were in the
building, but nobody was hurt. Can we go inside now? Is it
safe, I mean?"
"I'm sure it is, but we can only use one side of the
She followed me into the kitchen, and I set the birdhouse
down on the counter. The entire house smelled of oatmeal and
cinnamon, air and fresh, damp earth.
"Oh, what a mess!"
"My cookies for the party," I said.
For the first time since the tornado touched down, I felt
like crying. Three dozen cookies baked, cooled, carefully
arranged on trays and covered with plastic, and the last batch
to come out of the oven, my contribution for a party that
wouldn't take place-they were all trash on the floor.
"I have to feed Halley," I said. "I'll just
give her dry dog food today."
"While you're doing that, I'll start cleaning up."
"Don't. I can do it later."
But she found the broom and dustpan and began sweeping, and
I didn't stop her.
"I didn't realize that tree was so enormous," she
"It was one of those fast-growing poplars. I always
thought there was something strange about it because it had
maple leaves too. There was so much dead wood that I wanted
to have it cut down, but they were going to charge me twelve
hundred dollars, so I left it. That was a very bad decision."
"Yes, well you didn't know what was going to happen.
You can't stay here tonight, Jen. They're predicting more
rain. Come home with me. You, too, Halley girl," she
added, tapping the top of the crate lightly.
"Thanks, but I can't leave my house. Everything I own
is here. Besides, I don't intend to sleep tonight. I'm too
That was one way to explain what I felt. There was another
reason for my reluctance to accept Leonora's offer. Along
with the sirens and occasional shouts drifting in from the
street, I kept hearing the sound of the most powerful wind
I'd ever experienced and the crash of the great tree as it
toppled down on my life. If I left now and didn't deal with
what had happened, I thought the noise would never go away.
"Rest for a while then," she said. "This has
been a shock. Adam said to tell you that he'll be over in
the morning to help you with whatever you need. He'll bring
some of the men, maybe Jerry, with him. I'd say chopping up
that wood is a top priority."
"Yes, and calling my insurance company, finding a contractor
and seeing what I can salvage. There's so much to be done.
Whatever was in the kitchen and basement should be all right.
I can't remember everything I stored in the attic."
"Here's one of your candles next to Halley's crate,"
she said. "I'm so glad your candelabrum didn't break.
I always loved it."
"So have I. It's one of the few things I have that belonged
to my mother."
I was on the verge of tears again, and I didn't want to be.
I had my dog and many precious objects. An hour ago, I'd been
grateful to be alive. Other people had come through the same
tornado and undoubtedly endured great losses. Then there were
those in Maple Falls who were dead and the people who lived
in the new condominiums, if they had survived the tornado.
I had to remember that.
"You can have your house put back together again, but
it won't happen overnight," Leonora said. "Everybody's
going to be trying to hire contractors."
"It won't be easy, and I know it'll take time, but I'll
"In the meantime, what will you do?" she asked.
"I'm going to look for a house to rent, take what I
can with me and replace the rest. I've wanted to make a change,
and there's no better time than now to do it. I'd like to
live in a place that's always quiet and peaceful and safe."
"No, I said, "in Foxglove Corners, where I bought
"Cozy lovers will treasure Jennet
and her determined clue gathering."