The We and the They

british-army-patrol-on-the-nationalist-falls-rd-after-a-night-of-rioting-bx1rkt“The We and the They didn’t used to exist,” Great Aunt Alexa says, pulling the curtain back and peering out the window. “It used to just be the US.”

She is worried, but Mom always says she frets too much. It’s what older people have always done. They long for the past and are always talking about the “good old days.” Things were always better back then.

“But we know better,” Mom is always saying, “We are creating a better way of life. The way things are now is not any good and They are entirely to blame.”

Great Aunt Alexa doesn’t like the way Free Oppela is governed or the way it functions, or the fact that We can’t visit Old Oppela. We don’t want to go there anyway.

“They have blocked the N6 again,” the man wearing a patch of the Free Oppela flag says over his megaphone to a group of the We that have gathered in the square. “They are keeping the aid shipments of food and medicine from getting through. They are threatening to shut off the pipelines to restrict the water supply to Free Oppela. We won’t stand for this. We have a plan. We are preparing an offensive. It will begin at the end of this week.”

The crowd of the We begin to cheer and I watch through the windows as the We wave the flag of Free Oppela, a dark blue square with a large, white five-point star in the center.

Great Aunt Alexa closes the curtain and Dad turns on the TV. Though the We are liberated, Free Oppela still receives the government-sponsored channel of the Republic of Saxet. They are talking about the We again, calling the We terrorists, but We know better.

“They are so brainwashed! Listen to those idiots,” Dad says, getting irritated and switching to the only other channel that attenae in Free Oppela can pick up, WNN, which is an international news station. WNN is decidedly on the side of the We. Being on the other side of the world has given the international community a big picture perspective of the revolution and WNN knows that the We are liberators fighting against a murderous tyrant.

“Twenty-seven people were killed, including twelve children, when Saxet government forces targeted the last functioning hospital in South Oppela in an airstrike this week,” the WNN reporter says. “Fifty-six people were injured. Hospitals and schools have increasingly become targets as tensions are running high in the republic, which is now entering its ninth year of civil war.”

The revolution began while Mom was still pregnant with me, so I don’t know what it was like before the We and the They, but Great Aunt Alexa always jumps at the chance to tell the story.

“I was born in Oppela and when I was growing up, it was still just a small town,” she has told me and my little sister, Rim, on more occasions than we can remember. “Most people only lived here because they were students at the University of Saxet and enjoyed the laid back culture, so many of them stuck around, starting families and building businesses. It had a thriving local music scene, and that combined with its proximity to lakes and hiking trails made it a destination of sorts for people from out of state-”

“What’s a state?” Rim usually asked. She’s four years younger than me, so she hasn’t started school yet and doesn’t know a lot of the words used before the We and the They.

“Before the Continental American Territories were established, it was all a single country known as the United States of America. There were fifty states and after Saxet seceded—it was called Texas in those days—many other states did as well, and many of them banded together to form larger territories based on their political leaning.”

“Why was Saxet called Texas?” Rim would ask.

“When Saxet, er… Texas was in the process of seceding, people said it was a backward state and started referring to it as Saxet. The people of Texas considered that a badge of honor of sorts and adopted it as the Republic’s new name.”

“That’s so weird.”

“It’s all weird, Rim. It’s all very weird. Anyway, Oppela became very prosperous and the population was mainly educated people and transplants from other states who had beliefs about how things should be that differed significantly from the majority of the rest of Saxet. Everyone managed to coexist with each other until a very divisive presidential election. Leading up to that election, people were very angry at each other and everyone started speaking in terms of the We and the They. ‘We can’t stand for this,’ people on both sides would say. ‘If They win, it will destroy our way of life.’

“Eventually, Wilhem Ryder won the election and half of the United States, or the US as it was called, became very angry. The other half, Ryder’s supporters, became indignant. Everything was about We and They. ‘They are a bunch of backward idiots. We are going to lose a lot of our rights.’ ‘They are a bunch of liberal crybabies. We are going to make this country great again.’ It was all anyone talked about and everyone talked about it constantly.

“I remember when your father was just a baby, your grandmother used to host playdates with all the other new mothers in the neighborhood and it’s all they talked about. ‘They spray painted a bunch of hateful words on a store in North Oppela. Can you imagine being so ignorant? I’m so glad We are so much more intelligent than that.’ Even when she was rocking your dad to sleep, she’d listen to speeches given by people talking about it. ‘We have to do something. Make sure you’re calling your representatives. Say We won’t stand for what They are doing to our country.’ Everyone talked like that. It became the norm and it made the divide that much worse. An entire generation of people were born and raised with those divisive words of We versus They and it was all they knew. And as that generation grew into adulthood, We and They became more than just pronouns. It became an identity claimed by both sides of the divide.”

 

Today is a school day and I make my way through streets flanked by dilapidated buildings and piles of rubble. My walk is interrupted by one of the We shouting from a roof.

“Take cover, kid! They have a sniper today!”

I duck into an abandoned storefront and wait, flinching and clasping my ears at the sound of a series of gunshots. After it falls silent for several minutes, I make my way out the backdoor and creep through the snaking alleyways until I arrive at a hollowed-out former coffee shop, where my teacher is in the middle of the day’s lesson.

Miss Abercrombie is like Great Aunt Alexa and doesn’t conform to the We and the They, and many of my classmates talk behind her back about how the We is going to come after her one of these days.

“It was after Ryder lost his reelection to the Democratic challenger, Tobias Preston, in 2020 that Texas petitioned for secession and became the independent Republic of Saxet. Saxet was nearly unanimous in its choice to elect President Aleshire. Now, back in the days when Saxet was still part of the US, a president was limited to two four-year terms but the state governor had no term limits, and the people of Saxet decided to extend this to the newly-created office of the President of the Republic. And as a result, Aleshire has been in power for nearly thirty years.”

“Jeez! They were such a bunch of idiots!” a boy named Micah pipes up from one side of the room. “They should have established term limits. Then We wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“How did this mess begin, Micah?” she asks.

“The They started shooting the We at the first demonstrations.”

“Not quite.”

“That’s what my dad says. He was there.”

“No, what happened was a group of people were unhappy with the choices made by another group of people and wanted to do something about it. So they protested. The government sent military forces to keep things under control, but the protestors lashed out and became violent, and the military responded with force. Both sides were wrong and both sides were responsible for killing a lot of people.”

“The We were not wrong. The They just wanted to keep the We from getting our rights back and the They shot everyone.”

“And then what happened, Micah?” she asks in voice that is patient, but also slightly patronizing.

“The We fought back. The We had to. The They would have killed everyone.”

“What if the protestors sent people to talk to the government instead of fighting back?”

“You can’t talk to the They. The They are bunch of backwards idiots.”

“How do you know that?”

“They just are.”

“Have you ever talked to anyone from Old Oppela?”

“Of course not.”

“Then how do you know they’re just a bunch backwards idiots?”

Micah shrugs. “My dad says so.”

“Has he ever talked to anyone from Old Oppela?”

He shrugs again. “Maybe before the revolution began.”

“Do you understand how that’s a problem?”

“It’s a problem because the They are too ignorant to reason with.”

“No, the problem is, and always has been, a lack of communication.”

I raise my hand.

“Yes, Omran?”

“Miss Abercrombie, how can the We communicate with the They if the They just want to kill us?”

“You have to be the first to bridge the divide. It was a lack of communication and willingness to bridge a divide a long time ago that sank this whole continent into chaos. Back in the early years of the twenty-first century, there was no They and We in the sense that you all use those words today. That happened because people were very angry about a lot of things, and instead of trying to compromise and communicate with people they were angry at, they only talked to people who agreed with them. That resulted in a culture and language of division. That division is the only thing your parents ever knew growing up because it’s all their parents could talk about, so it became the world your parents grew up in and the language they spoke. Once they were adults, they were fluent in divisiveness instead of compromise and when they became sick of the way things were, the only way they knew how to change anything was by fighting.”

“We can’t communicate with the They,” I protest. “The They are ignorant and violent.”

“No,” she says, “they’re just like you. And you’re all just angry.”

Out of nowhere, the guttural hum of a low-flying jet fills the air and she’s barely able to tell us to take cover under the tables before there is an earth-shaking explosion.

I am suddenly rendered deaf, but only momentarily before total silence is replaced by a high-pitched buzz in my ears. The buzzing is so loud that all the sounds of screaming and crying surrounding me are muffled and incoherent. I am in total darkness, save for light peeking through crevices between the pieces of brick and dry-wall that have buried the table I dove underneath. A girl named Leila huddles next to me and we cling to one another in our cave of rubble. After what feels like a lifetime, we hear the rescuers shouting orders at each other as they begin shoveling and digging.

A couple of hours later, Leila and I sit on the curb across the street from what used to be our school building, staring at three small bodies covered by white sheets. Micah, or what used to be Micah, is under one of them. Leila is hysterical, but I can’t feel anything enough to cry. Some of the rescuers are wailing and some are filming the scene with phones.

“This is the aftermath of the latest airstrike. Look at what They have done. Three innocent children dead.”

Some of the rescuers are yelling at Miss Abercrombie, who is white with dust and bleeding from her head. “You are responsible for this! You are an informant! You are on their side and look what They did!”

She tries to reason with the rescuers despite being confused and wobbly, but she is taken into custody and led away. I never see her again.

Two of the rescuers drive the rest of us to a makeshift hospital in a van that functions as a makeshift ambulance. While one drives, the other films us with his phone.

“Look at what They did! They are ignorant, violent scum and look at what They have done to our children!”

We are treated for various injuries and our parents are called. Mom and dad weep and cradle me while wailing, “How could They do this? They have no respect for innocent lives!”

That night in our home, we watch the President of Saxet sit in his office flanked by the flags of the Republic of Saxet, which are squares consisting of a white top half and a red bottom half. He issues a statement on the government-sponsored channel about the attack.

“They staged it. They are insistent upon perpetuating this war to the point that They manufacture propaganda to convince the world that They are right. We will not stand for this kind of manipulation of hearts and minds and We will not relent until We once again have a safe and united Saxet, and this includes the areas of Oppela They currently occupy.”

Later, WNN airs a statement from the leader of the We. “They once again take no responsibility for the murderous acts They insist upon carrying out against We who are liberated in Free Oppela. All of Saxet deserves freedom from They who seek to continue this oppression. In response to this atrocious act, We will make an example of this-”

The footage of the leader of the We is abruptly cut short and the anchorwoman begins discussing news from elsewhere in the world. There is commotion outside in the square and Great Aunt Alexa lifts the curtain. I approach her so I can peer out, but she stops me.

“Don’t watch this time.”

“Why not?”

She sighs and closes the curtain. “It’s your teacher.”

The word barely makes it past her lips when the sound of a single gunshot ringing out causes us both to jump.

 

The We begin the offensive later that week, launching multiple rocket-propelled grenades stolen from the They into Old Oppela. The state-sponsored broadcast says, “We will not stand for this. They will be met with force.” In only a matter of days, tanks bearing the white and red flag crawl through the barbed-wire boundary separating Old and Free Oppela and begin obliterating entire neighborhoods. Our house is destroyed on day four and it seems Great Aunt Alexa had every right to worry after all. But she didn’t say, “I told you so.” She didn’t live long enough to say anything.

A-Fiction

I do not expect to see him, but there he is. He looks older, of course. I do too. He also seems taller. I do not go out of my way to say hi, but he’s in my path to exit the wedding festivities and I have no reason or desire to avoid him. So I wave.
“Hey.”

Recognition comes after a beat and he smiles. “Hey! I haven’t seen you in forever.”

“I know, it’s been a while. Like, something like–”

“Like six or seven years or something,” he finishes for me.

“Something like that, yeah.”

He tries to conceal the smirk on his face. “Since that-”

“Yeah,” I cut in. I knew he would mention it. “That party. And that weekend.”

He suddenly appears guilty, so I smile. But it seems he feels the need to explain himself anyway.

“I didn’t mean to, like… I mean if that was…” he stammers, still smiling, but also rubbing the back of his neck. “I didn’t want to be… I don’t know. It probably wasn’t the best idea, but you were really cool about it. I expected you to go a little psycho afterward.”

I laugh lightly. “Why?”

He shrugs. “Because that’s what women do when guys do what I… you know… did.”

“Well,” I say, also shrugging. “I don’t really give that incident much thought.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“Why not?”

“Because when I think of you, I don’t think of that weekend.” The words roll off my tongue before I can assess their true meaning.

“Really?” He appears marginally insulted, but he’s still smiling. “So what do you think of instead?”

I look past him to the dusky sky for a second as I think of everything. Then I look back at his green eyes, noticing the crow’s feet that haven’t always been there.

“I think of… seventh grade. First day of school. When you wouldn’t stop poking me in the back with your eraser, and I turned around to tell you to quit and you said, ‘if I quit, will you give me a kiss?’ and then I turned back around with my cheeks burning and wondering if some boy would actually want to kiss me.

I think of high school, when my best friend had such a huge crush on your brother and I had to go with her to a party you threw just so she could talk to him.

I think of my first night after moving back here and going to a bar with people from my new job that I barely knew, seeing you bartending and spending the whole evening talking to you instead of them.

I think of a year later at that same bar when I got into a scary fight with my boyfriend, which you defused by stepping in and casually engaging him in conversation about some video game.

I think of the first time I saw you after you came back from Iraq and noticing you finally looked like a man and not a boy.

I think of the day my best friend married your brother and us walking up the aisle.

I think of the day we stood in front of the glass at the hospital, looking at their newborn baby, talking about how crazy it was. How a baby could be such a perfect combination of two people.”

I stop talking and he’s wearing a wide grin.

“Oh yeah,” is all he says. But his eyes say more.

“Yeah,” I agree, taking a step back. “Anyway. It was nice seeing you.”

I start to leave again when I hear him speak.

“Katie.”

I glance back and see him holding out his hand toward me.

“What?”

He flips his fingertips slightly, gesturing toward the dancefloor. “Come on.”

“What, you want to go dance?”

“Yeah.” He’s still grinning. “Come on.”

“Why?”

He shrugs. “So you can have another thing to think of.”

I smile.

Sometimes it is not, nor should it be, love.
Sometimes it’s just a thread. One you don’t notice unless you go searching for it, skimming over the tapestry of your life. Maybe you can find the beginning, maybe you can’t. Maybe you can find the ending, maybe you can’t. But the thread is there, adding color and intricacies.

And even though you rarely think of this singular thread, it is part you, and you know that without it the whole thing would look a bit different. Like it was missing something.

May 27, 1997 | A Short (True) Story

We were just kids.

Our parents weren’t home. I was fourteen. My sister was twelve. And we were alone.

Our brother was fifteen, but he wasn’t there either. Not that he could or would have helped the situation. But still. He wasn’t there.

My sister, Asher, and I weren’t the only ones in this terrifying predicament. We lived in Cedar Park, a small town just north of Austin, Texas that was a family oriented community and there were lots of kids our age.

May 27, 1997 was a Tuesday. School had let out for summer the previous Friday, so all of our parents were at work. When you’re fourteen, being home alone is awesome. You have free reign of your time and can raid the refrigerator and watch as much TV as you want. And since it was only a few days into summer vacation, the novelty of being out of school hadn’t worn off yet. By the end of summer, I’d usually grow a bit bored, having nothing to do. Of course, there were chores required of my siblings and me, but those just had to be completed by the time our parents arrived home in the evening. We usually waited until the very last possible minute before we started on them.

So with my free time between waking up and when my parents got home, I got to do whatever I wanted.

On May 27, 1997, I slept in, as teenagers have a tendency to do. I drank a Coke for breakfast and I watched TV. When I was fourteen, I was obsessed with celebrity life and fashion, so I watched a Fashion Emergency marathon on E! Asher and I got into a stupid fight over something that didn’t matter and that I can’t remember, and she left the living room to go take a nap.

And shortly thereafter, it started.

Joan Rivers was running her mouth and out of nowhere, her Brooklyn accent was replaced by a loud, obnoxious series of blaring beeps.

A crawler appeared at the bottom of the screen.

The National Weather Service has issued a Tornado Watch for the following counties: Bell, Frio, Hays, Hill, Kendall, McLennan, Navarro, Travis, Uvalde, Williamson…

Cedar Park is located in Williamson County, so I glanced out the large windows of the living room. The sky was blue and clear and it looked as hot as was typical for that time of year. It wouldn’t last. I knew that. But there probably wouldn’t be tornadoes. I knew that, too. At least, that’s what I believed at the time.

Growing up in Texas, you become accustomed to the warning, “conditions are favorable for tornadoes,” but for some reason, the worst case scenario always evaded us. A Tornado Watch just meant it was going to storm, and growing up in Texas, you live for those delicious spring and summer storms that give you a brief respite from the oppressive heat.

Nevertheless, because Texas is technically part of Tornado Alley, you also grow up knowing what to do in the event that a tornado actually shows up. My dad, being not quite a helicopter parent, but one who insisted that we were always prepared for the worst, drilled into us the safety precautions from a young age.

“Stay away from windows.”

“Go to a location in the center of the house.”

“Bring blankets and pillows.”

“Bring a battery-operated radio.”

“Bring a flashlight.”

But even at fourteen, I’d never experienced having to take cover in such a manner. Instead, severe thunderstorms were merely an exciting novelty. So I turned off Joan Rivers and switched to the weather radar, and there it was.

1997_Central_Texas_tornado_outbreak_radar_2048z
Radar from the KEWX WSR-88D radar station in New Braunfels, Texas.

A big blob of green, yellow, orange, and red slowly floating its way across the map of Texas, taking a diagonal, southwestern path and heading straight for us. I immediately ran to the kitchen to grab another Coke, jumped back on the couch, and patted the cushion, inviting our black labrador mix, Abby, to join me for the exciting show.

She and I sat on the couch for a while, anticipating when the glorious rain would arrive, looking forward to it squelching the stifling the heat and providing a nice, dark canopy to shield the neighborhood from the searing rays of the sun.

I should have been tipped off by the fact that the rain never arrived. This storm would be different.

Sometime later, the blaring series of beeps sounded again and the robotic warning came over the speakers.

“The National Weather Service has issued a Tornado Warning for areas in Central Texas, including Bell County, Frio County, Hays County, Hill County, Kendall County, McLennan County, Navarro County, Travis County, Uvalde County, Williamson County. A tornado has been spotted in McLennan County west of Box Ranch Road and moving west-southwest to west of Mackey Ranch Road. Seek shelter…”

I glanced out the window. Still bright and sunny and McLennan County was a decent distance away from us. So I grew bored with the radar and lack of interesting weather and switched back to the E! channel.

I spent the next couple of hours using Abby as a pillow, only getting off the couch for a snack or another Coke, haphazardly checking the time to make sure I didn’t miss my window to start my chores. The warnings continued to randomly punctuate my shows, but I’d stopped paying attention to them for the most part.

It was not quite three p.m. when the sky finally turned ominously dark. There was still no rain, and I was still not tipped off by that.

And then, right around three p.m., maybe a bit after, the phone began to ring.

I wish I could say that one of my parents was the first to call, but they didn’t. The first person to call was my brother, Tim.

“I saw a tornado.”

Tim was perpetually full of shit.

I scoffed into the phone. “Yeah, right.”

“I did. It was in Buttercup.” Buttercup Creek was a nearby neighborhood where the vast majority of kids from our school lived, including Tim’s friend, Jay. They had spent the afternoon rollerblading. “You guys need to take cover.”

“Oka-ay…”

“I’m serious,” he insisted. “A bunch of people’s houses were blown away. Jay’s crying. His mom is freaking out.”

You had to take Tim’s words with a grain of salt. But sometimes there was a larger element of truth than others, and somehow the idea of Jay crying freaked me out. Jay was a year younger than me, but always seemed mature for his age. And when you’re fourteen, you think you’re basically a grown-up, so anyone your age also seems like a grown-up. Grown-ups and mature teens don’t usually cry or get scared.

I don’t remember what I said to Tim, or if I said anything.

“Just take cover,” he said. “Jay’s mom is going to bring me home when it’s safe to drive.”

I got off the phone and went to the formal living room where Asher was asleep on the sofa, trying to remain calm in spite of my steadily growing apprehensiveness.

“Wake up,” I told her. “There’s a tornado and we need to go in the bathroom.”

She stretched and yawned and was still annoyed at me over our earlier fight. “What are you talking about? The sun is shining.” She pointed at the windows and went quiet.

The sky was black—and still no rain.

We immediately began going through the motions of everything the we’d been told to do in this situation. I moved at a normal pace, not wanting to panic and upset my sister. I was the oldest right then and I couldn’t let her know I was scared.

Since we lived in a large, two-story house, gathering the necessities we’d need for such a situation took a few minutes. Our cat, Sophie, was usually hiding under one of the beds and Asher went looking for her. I went upstairs to my room to grab blankets and pillows. While I was up there, curiosity got the best of me and I needed to look out the windows.

The sky had changed. It wasn’t black anymore. At that moment, it had transformed into thick masses of light grey clouds, but there was that distinctive horizontal break. The clouds abruptly ended in a harsh, straight line and there was clear sky below it. I noticed the movement of the clouds. Slow. Strangely directionless.

There was otherwise no movement anywhere outside. No people. No birds. And the trees were eerily still.

house
Our childhood home. My window top right. My brother’s window top left.

My room faced the street in front of the house and my window was the largest. It was floor-to-ceiling, at least five feet wide, and topped with an elegant arch. Everything I needed to see was right out that window, but for some reason I was compelled to go look out Tim’s window, which also faced the street.

I dropped the blankets in the hall between our bedrooms, stood in front of his window, and I saw it.

The first thing I noticed was the trees were finally moving. But I quickly forgot the trees because I saw the debris in the air. Black pieces of unidentifiable debris. It looked like roof shingles and roof shingles shouldn’t be able to swirl around in the air like that.

I saw it in the top left quadrant of the window and it was right above our next door neighbor’s house. It appeared faint against the rest of the clouds, but it was distinguishable. Thin, narrow, wispy, but unmistakable. A funnel cloud drilling and spiraling in its descent from the sky.

And that was when I finally panicked.

“Touchdown!” I screamed, as if we were watching football. “Touchdown! Touchdown! Get in the bathroom!”

With blankets and pillows, Abby, Sophie, food and water for both of them, and a radio, we piled into the downstairs bathroom.

We climbed into the bathtub, covered ourselves with a blanket, and waited.

We didn’t turn on the radio. Not yet. We had to listen.

They say that a tornado sounds like a freight train, but we heard nothing like that. In fact, we heard nothing at all.

At some point Asher spoke up. “I’m sorry. I love you.”

We’d had a fight that afternoon and right then we were sitting in a bathtub waiting for our house to be blown away; possibly waiting to die, too.

We were just kids. I was fourteen. My sister was twelve. And we were alone.

“I love you, too.”

It was the single most anticlimactic moment of my life, because we continued to sit in total silence for a long time and nothing happened.

The silence lasted until the phone began ringing. The phone, which was not cordless and all the way across the house in the kitchen. The path from the bathroom to the kitchen was replete with large windows. There were so many windows in our house that we didn’t even have to turn the lights on during the day. I loved the windows and the natural light they provided, but right then all I could think of was the second I left the safety of the bathroom, I was vulnerable to a potential explosion of shattering glass.

But the phone was still ringing, so I had to go.

I left the bathroom first and Asher came with me.

In the windows, the sky was no longer black, but the same light grey it had been right before I saw the funnel cloud. There was still no rain.

I made it to the phone and my mom was on the other end.

“Are you girls okay?” Mom was a nurse, so she wasn’t the type to panic. She was always solid and calm, and right then was no different.

“We’re fine.” I was the type to stifle my feelings in situations that were too intense. “Nothing’s happening here.”

“I’m leaving the hospital. I’ll be there soon.”

Nineteen years later I would ask Mom about this particular phone call.

“It’s a wonder you all were not killed,” she told me. “This was before the time of cell phones, so I had to call before I left work. The hospital would not let the staff leave, but I managed to get out before they made that announcement. The traffic was crazy and I couldn’t get home fast enough.”

In my mind, all I could think of were my schoolmates and friends who lived in little Cedar Park; all of their parents, like mine, at work in Austin; all of those parents in their cars, clogging up the northbound lane of Highway 183 that lead from Austin into Cedar Park. Over the course of nineteen years, 183 was renovated into a big, wide highway with toll lanes. But in 1997 it was essentially just a three-lane suburban street, given to awful traffic jams during peak times. And late afternoon on May 27, 1997 was definitely a peak time.

After I hung up, Asher and I went outside expecting to see some kind of damage in our neighborhood. But there was nothing. Everything looked totally normal other than the gusts of wind.

The Tornado Warning wouldn’t expire until well into the evening, so we went back inside and moved the blankets to a large closet under the staircase. Abby and Sophie were growing agitated by being confined to a small space—especially being confined to a small space together—so we let them out.

The phone calls continued.

From Jay’s mom. “Are you girls okay? Make sure you stay inside. I’ll be there soon with Tim.”

From my best friend, Natasha. “Did you see a tornado? We didn’t see anything over here.”

Natasha lived in Leander, which was the next small town slightly north up 183 from Cedar Park.

“Oh yeah,” I said, feigning excitement over the whole thing; the only way to quell my fear and anxiety. “We’re having a party!”

“What? A party? Like a real party?”

“We built a clubhouse under the stairs. We’re having fun!”

She laughed. “Can I come over?”

For some crazy reason, her mom agreed to it.

From Tim. “I’m on my way. You won’t believe what Buttercup looks like right now.”

I felt a strange combination of horror and intrigue, and I decided I wanted to see it.

The rest of the evening is hazy in my memory. The weather morphed into something less strange and more normal. Natasha arrived at some point and so did Tim and my parents. We watched movies in the living room and managed to overhear Mom and Dad speaking in semi-hushed tones in the kitchen.

“The Albertson’s has a gaping hole right through the center of it,” Mom said. Albertson’s was our go-to grocery store. Like many things in Cedar Park—being the up-and-coming community that it was—it was brand new. The store managers had saved the lives of customers by pulling everyone into walk-in freezers. “Someone said it looks like a bomb went off.”

albertsons
Aftermath of tornado damage to Albertson’s grocery store in Cedar Park, Texas. Source: TEI Controls.

Nineteen years later, I look at the photos of the grocery store and am reminded of photos of the Pentagon on 9/11.

“The entire city of Jarrell was wiped away,” Dad said. “It was an F5.”

The movie Twister had come out almost exactly one year prior to this chaotic day, and we had all become well-versed in the Fujita scale as a result. An F5 tornado was classified as having wind speeds between 261 and 318 miles per hour. In the movie Twister, the F5 tornado is the one at the end that nearly kills Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt.

jarrell-tor-horizontal-vortex-tubes
F5 Jarrell Tornado. Source: Shawn.

In real life, the Jarrell F5 tornado killed 27 people and 300 cattle and horses. The city itself hadn’t been wiped away as my dad said, rather a subdivision had. The tornado was three-quarters of a mile wide and tracked across the ground for more than seven miles. The subdivision, Double Creek Estates, consisted of 38 homes and several mobile homes, and it was obliterated.

 

“It was literally wiped off the face of the earth,” the reporters would later tell us. “Nothing is left.”

 

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Foundation of a former home in Double Creek Estates in Jarrell, Texas. Source: Shawn.

Aerial damage from the Jarrell tornado was reviewed by researchers and it was considered to be the most violent tornado they’d ever seen. The homes in Double Creek were well-constructed and bolted to their foundations, but the storm left only the concrete slabs. The houses were pummeled into finely granulated fragments and scattered for sweeping distances across the Central Texas countryside. Entire families were killed, including the Igo family, who were beloved by and active in the Jarrell Baptist Church. Those who weren’t killed were sandblasted by the loose soil of the region, resulting in dozens of traumatic injuries. Rescuers said they had difficulty distinguishing the human remains from that of the animals.

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The Igo family. From left to right: John, 15; Joan, 45; Paul, 15; Larry, 46; and Audrey, 17. Source: Shawn.

The night of the storm, none of us knew the extent of the damage and loss of life. We only knew that, in our little subdivision in Cedar Park, we’d dodged one hell of a bullet.

Tragically, many of my school friends who lived in Buttercup Creek couldn’t say the same thing.

 

****

 

The next day was hot. The temperature was in the mid-nineties with high humidity, as was typical for late May in Central Texas. In spite of this, Asher, Natasha, and I decided to walk the five miles to Buttercup Creek.

Buttercup Creek was an older, established neighborhood, full of large, nice, well-built homes. Meticulously manicured lawns and expensive cars. Cedar Park, at the time, was yuppie-central and nice homes and cars were seemingly important status symbols. But after May 27, 1997, every resident of Cedar Park got a harrowing reality check.

Sticky and sweating, Asher, Natasha, and I made our way into the parameters of the neighborhood and everything seemed totally normal. Then we rounded a corner.

 

It was like walking into a movie. There was a slight bend in the street, so we watched a slow reveal of the carnage.

Tornadoes are Mother Nature’s version of Russian Roulette, and this street in Buttercup Creek was a terrifying example of that.

Untouched house; untouched house; house with broken windows; untouched house; a car in a driveway flattened by a tree; largely untouched house, the lawn littered with branches and leaves; untouched house; house missing half of its second story.

I stared at that one.

I was a couple hundred yards away and I could see inside someone’s bedroom. I didn’t know whose house it was, but it looked like a typical teenager’s bedroom, so I knew it was someone from my school. It wasn’t even particularly mangled. It looked like someone had carefully and meticulously sliced it in half with a jig saw. Posters still hung on the wall and the bed sat neatly in one corner.

Untouched house; tree branches in a yard; a stripped roof; a large tree on its side between two houses; a concrete slab with groupings of pipes sticking up out of the ground.

We all stopped.

I don’t remember any of us saying anything. We were probably all thinking the same thing.

A house used to be right there. That was where someone lived, and now it’s gone. How is that possible?

We were just kids. A lot of the people who lived on this street were just kids. And right then, staring at a street replete with varying degrees of destruction spliced with total normalcy, it seemed none of us could process what we were looking at.

Construction crews and electricians and other workers were milling about. I don’t remember seeing any of the families. I guessed that many of them had gone to relatives’ houses in the wake of damaged or destroyed homes.

And since we were just kids who couldn’t process the gravity of the sights, and since it was so hot, the three of us merely left in search of a nearby neighborhood swimming pool.

The Cedar Park tornado varied in intensity between F1 and F3, had traveled a total of nine miles and reached a maximum width of two-hundred fifty yards. One-hundred thirty-six homes in the neighborhood were damaged and there was one indirect fatality. The man had died of a heart attack while trying to wait out the storm in his truck. He was a family friend of my friend, Kelly. About a year after all of this, I spent the night at Kelly’s house and she showed me a scrapbook of newspaper clippings, crying quietly over the man she’d known since toddlerhood. The first person she’d ever known to die.

We were just kids, most of us without our parents that day.  And on that day, we stared into the face of our own mortality. We saw firsthand how flippantly destructive Mother Nature can be. We came to grips with the idea that, sometimes, nobody can protect you. Because sometimes, it’s just you and your little sister sitting in a bathtub, in the dark, saying I love you and believing it’s the last thing you’ll ever say to anyone.

We were just kids, but on May 27, 1997, it seemed that we were forced to grow up.

 

After the Fight | a short story

AFTERTHEFIGHTRINGIt was seven-thirty AM and Sean O’Connor stood in front of the bathroom mirror, dragging the razor up and over his chin. He didn’t need to watch what he was doing, but he kept his eyes intentionally trained on his reflection anyway. Despite his intention, his gaze occasionally betrayed him and flicked to the glass dish next to the other sink in the master bathroom.

Lizzie’s ring sat in the dish where she left it after the fight.

It had been such a stupid, childish fight; one that smacked of adolescence, in spite of the fact that they were too old to be acting that way. She was thirty-two; he was thirty-three. Thirty-something-year-olds don’t act that way, but Sean and Lizzie had always been kind of young at heart. At least, Lizzie used to be kind of young at heart. Over the course of the seven years they’d been married it seemed she grew up and he didn’t. And that was ultimately the cause of the fight.

He’d misplaced the cable bill and forgot to tell her. Lizzie was good with finances, so she made sure the bills were paid on time. His job was simply to set the mail out where she could find it. On Monday she went through the small stack and saw the late notice.

“I never got the first one!” she’d said in protest to the letter before turning her hazel eyes up toward him. “Did we get the first one?”

He’d drawn a blank and shrugged, which caused her eyes to flash with exasperation. After sifting through a large stack of junk mail in a far corner of the kitchen counter, she found the previous bill and waved it at him.

“Twenty-five bucks down the drain, babe.”

He’d rolled his eyes and combed his fingers through his shoulder length hair as he went back to the master bedroom. “Right.”

What’s twenty-five bucks when you’re expecting yet another fat commission check? he wanted to ask. Lizzie was the Director of High Grade Sales at one of the largest brokerage firms in New York, so she brought home the bacon. A single one of her commission checks was usually what he managed to make in an entire month of bartending. It was a little emasculating, and being berated every time he dropped the ball on something so mundane didn’t help.

After the fight, he’d heard her leave for work, so he picked up his guitar, sat on the couch, and began strumming to distract himself. He remained distracted for the rest of the day until she arrived home from work and she brought it up again.

“Put all the mail in this,” she’d said, setting down a shallow plastic letter tray she’d brought home from her office. “That way we won’t waste anymore money on late fees.”

Her tone had seemed condescending and it grated on him, so he crossed the apartment and flippantly tossed all the mail in the tray without saying a word.

She cocked her head to one side. “What’s your problem? I’m trying to create a system. It’ll help.”

Before he could respond, his cell phone rang from in his pocket. The caller ID said it was Elena, one of the other bartenders.

He made a big show of answering casually. “Hey Elena, how’s it going?”

Lizzie pursed her lips as she eyeballed him while sifting through the letters.

“Can you cover my shift tonight?” Elena asked. “Jade’s got a stomach flu or something.”

Ohhh… yeah, of course,” he said oh-so-smoothly, sensing that Lizzie was still eyeballing him. Elena was gay and Jade was her partner–but Lizzie didn’t know that. As far as Lizzie knew, Elena was yet another one of the flirtatious cocktail waitresses. Lizzie hated the cocktail waitresses, because all the cocktail waitresses loved Sean. Everyone has their insecurities. His was the money situation; hers was the fact that seemingly every woman wanted to jump her husband’s bones.

And while Sean would never even entertain the idea of so much as looking at another woman, sometimes it was an ego-booster to remind Lizzie that maybe other women out there might not care where the fuck he left the mail. Or that he didn’t make anywhere close to six figures and that he never would.

Then again, Lizzie didn’t care that he’d never make the kind of money she did. She just seemed to want him to grow up the way she did. Stop messing around with the guitar. Stop wasting time playing late night shows at AJ’s club. Try to find a respectable job. Blah, blah, blah.

“Are you sure?” Elena asked.

“It’s absolutely my pleasure, Elena,” he said with an air of faux flirtation and a smile.

“You’re a lifesaver,” she said. “Thanks again.”

“You got it. See you later.” He shoved the phone in his pocket before putting on his shoes.

Lizzie shot him a look. “Who is Elena and where are you going?”

“One of the bartenders,” he answered, still oh-so-casual. “And I’m headed to work.”

“You’re not on the schedule tonight,” she protested.

He shrugged as he headed for the door. “I am now. I’ll see you later.”

He could feel her burning holes in the back of his head with her eyes, but he left anyway. He’d successfully made her jealous, which was stupid and childish and he knew it. It was just another one of their stupid, petty fights. They always made up. In spite of these stupid, petty fights, things were good–or so he believed until he found her ring in the dish next to her sink on Tuesday morning.

He focused more intently on shaving; perhaps dragging the razor a bit too aggressively, because he nicked his chin. It caused the rims of his eyes to prickle and a lump to rise in his throat, but it wasn’t the cut on his chin that hurt.

As he dabbed the blood with a towel, he thought of the day he gave her the ring. Just a thin gold band with a little half-carat diamond. It had taken him seven months to save up for it, but all the scraping together of his meager earnings from waiting tables was totally worth it when her eyes welled up as he held it out toward her while they sat on a bench in Central Park on her twenty-fourth birthday.

“Hope it fits,” he’d said, casual as always. He remembered the way she crinkled up her nose in delight as he slipped it on her finger and she gasped in delight.

“Look, babe! Perfect!” She pressed her nose against the side of his neck and sighed happily. “Just perfect.”

Sean abruptly shook his head and looked back at his reflection while combing his fingers through his close-cropped hair. He still wasn’t used to this stupid haircut. But that didn’t matter. She wanted him to finally grow up, so he did.

 

*

 

At the office, Sean was greeted by a notice that he was expected for a review.

Seeaaannn…” Mark drawled in his obnoxious voice with an equally obnoxious chuckle. “What’s going on, man? Your numbers are down again this quarter.”

Sean nodded and wore a pleasant but humble expression. “Yeah, I know. Lots of hang-ups. People just aren’t interested. They hate getting the calls. A lot of people are asking to be added to the Do Not Call registry.”

“Well, we just need to figure out how to get around that, huh?” Mark was so patronizing.

“We sure do.”

Mark picked up a pen and started making notes on a sheet of paper. “I’m going to have you shadow Jenny for a while. Maybe pick up some tips.”

Sean sighed quietly. Shadowing Jenny meant he was on informal probation for three months. If things didn’t improve after that it would be formal probation. It things still didn’t improve, he’d be shit-canned.

After signing off on the paper, Sean made his way to his desk to grab his head set and a notepad and pen. He let himself sulk for a moment in his chair before going to join Jenny, while he absently spun his wedding band and glanced at the photo on his desk.

Lizzie wearing a veil and him wearing a tux; her crinkled nose pressed against the side of his neck while they both grinned happily.

“Get your shit together,” he told himself under his breath. The job sucked. But that didn’t matter. She wanted him to finally grow up, so he did.

A minute or so later, he sat down next to Jenny’s desk and she gave him a sweet smile.

“Are you doing okay today?” she asked in that sympathetic tone everyone seemed to use on this particular day. “I’m surprised you came in at all.”

He shrugged. “Gotta work. Even today.”

 

*

 

After work, Sean swung by the apartment long enough to change into running clothes and was out the door again. He jogged through Tompkins Square Park, ignoring the flags at half-mast. Instead, he focused on one of the basketball courts. He and Lizzie played at that one. They’d played that Saturday. They’d been playing one on one since high school. It was how they’d met.

He had been a sophomore and she was a freshman and they happened to be on this court at the same time one day after school. He’d never seen a girl play basketball before and she was pretty damn good. He had intended to go easy on her, this cute, curly-haired brunette, but early in the game, she stole the ball from him and shot it over his head.

Swish.

He’d glanced back at her in disbelief and saw her crinkle her nose at him for the first time ever. The first of a million times she’d do that. Not quite love at first sight, but pretty close.

He rounded the corner toward East Tenth Street and headed back toward the apartment, staring at the ground to avoid seeing the flags.

 

*

After the long run, Sean was famished, so he pulled open the refrigerator door in search of any kind of sustenance. There was some leftover pizza and he scarfed three slices, only noticing mid-way through the third that it tasted a little funny. He grimaced, wondering if he would end up with food poisoning later, but decided it would make a convenient excuse to miss work.

He made his way back to the master bedroom, peeled off his sweaty running clothes, and collapsed on the bed, intending to rest for a few brief moments before getting in the shower. He stared at the ceiling for a while and then rubbed his eyes.

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when he heard the bedroom door open and felt the well-manicured nails stroking back his sweaty hair.

His eyes shot open as he jerked upward to sitting, and she was seated on the edge of the bed next to him. “Lizzie!”

She smiled at him. “Hey babe.”

He sighed loudly. “I missed you.”

“I know. I miss you too.” She continued to smile and stroke her nails through his hair. “How was work?”

He groaned. “I hate that place. I’m not making my quotas. I’m just not cut out for the corporate bullshit.”

She shrugged. “So quit. Don’t work somewhere that’s going to make you miserable.”

He gave her a mildly exasperated look. “I can’t quit. This is the kind of job you said I should have. It’s sensible and stable.”

She smirked. “That doesn’t matter. It’s obviously not what makes you happy. You should do what makes you happy.”

He shook his head and looked at her, noticing her outfit. White blouse; gray skirt. She looked like she just came from the office. “You look beautiful.”

She gave him a playful smile. “I think you just have a thing for my work clothes.”

“No, I just think you’re beautiful. I always have.” He paused as he noticed his chest starting to ache. “After the fight… when I came home, you were already asleep. You were beautiful then too. I wanted to wake you up just so I could kiss you goodnight, but I was still mad.”

“Well…” she said with a sigh. “I was mad, too. It is what it is.”

He noticed a surge of anger pulsed through his veins and he clenched his jaw. “And then you left in the morning.”

“I know.”

He huffed. “Why didn’t you at least wake me up before you left?”

She chuckled. “I never woke you up before I left. I always let you sleep in. That morning was no different.”

He raised an eyebrow. “That morning was completely different.”

“Yeah, but nobody knew that at the time.”

He sighed, but said nothing, so she smiled at him tenderly and touched his cheek. The feeling of her fingertips on his face caused his heart to burn. “I wish you’d called me. Or I wish I’d called you.”

“I didn’t have time. And you didn’t know. You probably weren’t even awake yet.”

He knew she was teasing him and it caused him to chuckle in spite of himself. “No, I wasn’t actually. I didn’t wake up until AJ called me at around nine-thirty.”

Out of nowhere, his mind materialized a mental picture of that particular phone call.

“Don’t turn on the TV,” AJ had said. But Sean turned on the TV anyway. Then he called her. Or at least, he tried to.

Six, seven, eight, nine, ten times he called, dropping the phone multiple times because his hands had been shaking uncontrollably. With every call, the same result: straight to voicemail.

He scrubbed his hands over his face and sighed.

“Have you been to his club lately?” Lizzie asked, shaking him out of the memory.

He cocked his head as he gave her a look. “I can’t do that anymore, sweetheart.”

“Why not?”

“You know why.”

“Playing is what makes you happy, Sean. You should swing by sometime.”

“But that’s not what you want me to do.”

“I think you would feel better if you did.” She paused. “I want you to be happy. You know that.”

The rims of his eyes began to prickle so he rubbed them with his fist before looking at her again. “I’m sorry about that phone call, Lizzie. It wasn’t at all what I was making it sound like. I was just so fed up right then.”

“I know.”

“I’d never do that to you,” he went on. “I was really frustrated and I was acting stupid.”

“I know.”

He paused for a long time while his chest began aching. “So why’d you take your ring off?”

She laughed. “I was acting stupid, too,” she said, stroking his hair back again. “I’d never do that to you either. I love you. You know that.”

The sound of her saying those three little words caused the ache in his chest to intensify to the point that it felt like his rib cage would split apart at his sternum and he rubbed his eyes again. When he peeled his eyelids open, he saw the ceiling again and he couldn’t help covering his face.

“I miss you so much.”

The words crossing his lips seemed to be a catalyst of sorts that caused his shoulders to heave once as he uttered guttural sob. He sat up and allowed himself about a minute or two to feel the full weight of his grief. After all, nobody else was there to see him cry like a little girl.

After getting himself under control, he took a quick shower with the intention of going straight back to bed, but found that sleep was now evading him. Having nothing else to do, he made his way to the living room and sat on the couch before flipping on the TV.

With this being the third anniversary, he was now used to the scenes on the local access station. The cheesy graphic of the American flag waving; the infamous date; the obligatory words in a banner across the top of the screen.

Never Forget.

Cheesy indeed, but he always watched. He had to. It usually took a couple of minutes before the scrolling words arrived at the point when he’d allow himself to turn it off.

And, eventually–for the third time–there were the words.

Elizabeth O’Connor – WTC 1 – 92nd Floor

Once her name and the name he’d given her disappeared passed the top edge of the screen, he turned off the TV as he always did and sat in silence.

Silence.

Just like the stupid haircut, he still wasn’t used to the silence. And today, the silence seemed that much more deafening. So he stood from the couch and made his way to the closet. He hadn’t opened the closet in three years, so the guitar needed a little dusting off and a bit of tuning. But after he’d done that, he sat back on the couch and began to play.