An hour can feel like a lifetime when you're running for your life!
.. in the eye ...
The sun was a warm glowing ball hovering just above the horizon and promised to warm the chill air of the dawn frost. Jackson ran his fingers over the tips of the half-grown corn stalks as he made his way through the field outside his parents’ farm. It looked to him as if the stalks were all straining to seem taller than they were, like a sibling rivalry. Little did they know of the chop that was to come! Following easily the well worn path through the field, he made his way from the farm house towards the edge of the fields, toward the river that marked the boundary of their land. The water slipped silkily over the rocks that made up the bed with a sound that always made him feel peaceful. That morning he had taken his binoculars with him in the hope of spotting a local buzzard that had nested nearby. She had a fledgling with her a few weeks ago and Jackson was keen to check that both mother and baby were doing okay, something else his father would laugh at him about.
Jackson hated Sundays. Not for the time away from school, that was always welcome, but the boredom felt more intense on those hot heavy days and the mandatory church service his parents made him attend felt as fake as the imaginary border of ownership the river provided. His parents had been corn farmers their whole lives as far as Jackson could tell with 150 acres of land which had been passed down through the ages as both a means of survival and a form of imprisonment. The size meant that his friends were not close and as he didn't yet drive a car, his time here was somewhat solitary.
On this Sunday morning Jackson was up and out early for some peace before he was called to get his Sunday best on. He found himself increasingly in need of thinking room since the argument with his parents a month ago and looking for the buzzard gave him a good excuse if asked.
Emerging from the corn his shadow stretched far in front of him, touching the water of the river before him. It was only three foot deep at this time of year but was ice cold and was often found frozen over in the mornings. On the other side, in the distance was a modest house and barn that stood in its own small plot. Jo lived there. He had known her all his life yet they had barely spoken. He doubted she even knew who he was. She was the type of girl who ignored most people and could take care of herself if needed. Jackson had tried to speak once following a particularly bad period of bullying towards her, but she wasn't interested. She seemed to shake off the nasty comments with a dirty look and closed mouth. He admired her for that although there was talk of her dishing out her own brand of justice at times.
As Jackson scoured the cloud dappled sky he couldn't spot the bird anywhere. He raised the binoculars and scanned the distance. When he swept across the front of Jo's house his temperature rose slightly. He panned back to look at the house and into the windows, his heart rate increasing. He knelt down to steady his picture. Nothing moved at first. Then he saw a shadow cross the curtained glass in the top right window, followed by a burst of light, as if a camera flash had gone off and Jackson had an image of a strange family portrait being taken or of a weird selfie, but Jo wasn’t that type of girl.
The cold morning dew began to soak through his trousers on his knee which drew his attention away. Looking down he shifted his weight so that he was balanced on the balls of his feet and returned the glasses to his eyes. Jo came out onto the front porch, pacing back and forth. She looked upset. Jackson stared intently at her through the lens; she was wearing a dirty black T-shirt and jeans. He looked at her face and thought that she was kind of pretty when she wasn't scowling. Suddenly she stopped and stared across the field, right through the lens at Jackson. Shit, could she see him?
He whipped the binoculars away and dropped his head. He expected to hear her shouts echo across the distance but no sound came. A gust of wind swept around him forcing leaves to dance in its wake. He raised the glasses again and saw Jo still staring in his direction. She began to move with more urgency around the side of the house. A stronger gust nudged Jackson off balance and he fell to his side cursing the wet grass. He stood up and looked behind brushing the water from his legs.
Fear and dread flooded him as he lost his grip on the binoculars, letting them fall without care. His entire focus was being forced to grasp what lay in front of him. He was staring at a wall of grey/black cloud of earth and dust that seemed to twist and stretch forever into a nightmarish sky. His heart raced as he realised that he was standing in front of the largest hurricane he had ever seen. His house in between looked like a toy in comparison. A sharp pain stung his face as a handful of corn whipped across his cheek bringing him out of his fear induced trance.
He looked to the left and right of the wall but could see no end or escape. His only chance was to cross the river and head toward Jo's but what about his parents sleeping in their bed? What could he do to warm them? He had no chance of making back in time, the storm was already beginning to pick off the roof tiles. He turned around and scrambled down the muddy bank and into the freezing water. He didn't care about the temperature as he waded across and dragged himself up the other side. Jumping to his feet he began running towards Jo’s house. His speed hampered by his sodden clothes and the racing of his mind on what was happening to his parents. He daren’t turn around in case his fears were realised before him. Now he knew why Jo was looking so petrified in his direction.
The deep vibration of the air and the low ominous growl that accompanied it made the air thick and it felt to Jackson that he was getting heavier with every step. Nearing the house he saw a corrugated shelter to the side that Jo must have been heading for. He changed course and ran towards it. As he got closer his progress began to slow to almost a walk as he was being forced sideways by the increasing winds. Staggering to the door he started to bang furiously on it with no answer. Dust was being thrown around Jackson's face making it almost impossible to keep his eyes open, the wind now whistling in his ears forcing his eardrums from their normal positions. He banged again and again until the door was suddenly flung open and with a look of pure terror across Jo's face, he stumbled inside.
There was no time for talking, only an exchange of looks as the flimsy metallic walls began to shake and rum against one another. The hut wasn't a shelter at all but more of a cover for a generator and water pump that fed the house. This was not a good place. Jo returned to her position next to the pump, lashing her hands and arms with a leather horse strap around the thick metal pipe that came up through the ground. Jackson instinctively unhooked his belt and ran over. The pipe split into two at a T junction two feet off the ground and he slid under the left curve and replicated Jo's idea.
The noise grew quickly until it became a deafening concoction of debris slamming metal like a machine gun and the screaming wind whistling through the gaps echoing louder with every second. Creaking and cracking wood could be heard as the house next to them began unpeeling, splintering into fragments as it tried in vain to hold onto its position on the ground. Jackson looked across at Jo who was staring at him almost disbelieving his presence more than the hurricane.
A reverberating pressure of air enveloped the hut as the roof quaked and began folding in and out, creating eye watering pressure that crushed and released their ear drums at a faster and faster rate. A sound like a wobble board accompanied the pain as the roof barely clung on to its corner fixings. Jackson clenched his eyes and lowered his head as much as possible, expecting his ears to burst at any moment. With a sudden release of pressure the roof was gone. A second of relief fell over Jackson replaced with terror as the walls dislodged from the ground around them and followed. Both bodies were thrown into the air as the winds whipped around them freely, daring to carry them up into the black sky.
Jo's hands were grasping at the leather strap as she felt her body stretch up away from the pipe. She gripped as tightly as she could but her sweat drenched palms began to slip, the muscles in her hands fatiguing fast. With a short gasp her grip gave out. The straps snapped and caught around her forearms and became the only thing keeping her from certain death. As her feet kicked high the leather dug deep into her skin becoming both her saviour and her agony. She was sure she was screaming but she couldn’t hear a thing except the relentless storm that swam around her as her body was tossed around like a stubborn strand of hair caught on the inside of a vacuum cleaner.
Then as suddenly as it arrived the wind slowed and stopped, discarding both of them to the ground in disgust at their reluctance to remain on the ground. Hearts raced and lungs gasped for life as the pain of the straps and buffeting from the swirling shrapnel began to emerge. Jackson shook off the belt and stood up rubbing his forearms. He looked over at Jo. He saw blood.
He rushed over to her. 'Jesus, you’re hurt, are you ok?' he shouted, running his hands over her torso checking for wounds.
'Get away,' she screamed pushing him back. 'What are you doing?'
Jackson didn’t think about where his hands were and he quickly withdrew them, embarrassed. The blood didn't appear to be coming from her but he couldn’t tell. He checked his own body for injury.
'What the hell are you doing here anyway? This is my house,' she yelled at him.
Jackson felt his face flush as he remembered looking at her house through his binoculars moments before. 'I was just out walking when that thing came out of nowhere,' he said pointing in the direction of the receding storm.
Jo looked at him unsure whether to believe him or not. Her default position was not to believe anyone. She turned to look at her house; a crumpled mess with one wall lying flat on the ground and what was left of the others pushed to impossible angles. The roof was nowhere to be seen.
'Your parents!' yelled Jackson and started to run towards the house. 'No,' called Jo, running in front of him, blocking his path.
'What, they may be okay?’ He said in disbelief. Why doesn’t she want me to look inside?
'No…they're not home', she lied. Jackson could see it but he had no idea why she would. ‘They’ve gone away for a while,’ she added trying to make it sound convincing. Jackson tried to play scenarios in his head where this could be true but came up with nothing.
‘What about your folks? She said, but Jackson didn’t want to look at what devastation might have fallen on them.
A ray of sunlight hit them like a spear from above temporarily blinding them. They looked up towards it, shielded behind their hands. Shocked at what appeared in front of them, any further questions tumbled from their minds as before them lay a large circular wall completely encasing them, stretching up as if they were inside a gigantic chimney. They lowered their eyes and spun around realising that they were in the centre of the hurricane with the outer edge quickly approaching them.
'Holy shit,' screamed Jo whose eyes desperately began scanning for a safe space to hide. The water pump had bent in the first wave and had come loose from its mooring. It would not take another round of battering. The generator was nowhere to be seen.
Jackson understood what she was doing. 'What about the house?' he offered.
They both looked over and knew that it would be a splintered coffin for them both.
'We'll have to run,' she said.
'What? Run where?'
After a brief pause she answered, 'If we keep in the centre we can stay safe until we find somewhere. It’s not moving very fast and it is big enough for us to stay away from the edges'.
The thought span around Jackson's mind but as impossible as it sounded he could think of no other alternative. What if it sped up? What if the funnel shrank? His mind struggled with the thought but knew it was their only hope.
Jo had already begun moving as Jackson's feet found momentum. He caught up quickly and matched her pace.
'Where are we headed?' he asked.
'There's a pumping station a few miles up ahead. If we're lucky the storm will keep heading that way and we can hide inside.
Jackson knew the station, a solid squat building that could easily shrug off the tempest. He also knew that it was surrounded by a toughened steel link fence topped with razor wire. Perhaps it would be damaged enough to get through by the time they got there.
After a few minutes of running they began to come across the debris of Jo's house. The contents were strewn across the open field as if a petulant child had tossed away their play house in a fit of rage. Pieces of furniture, clothing and fractured wooden walls and roof littered the floor. Jackson felt Jo's pace drop as she began to identify the fragments. He looked at her to say something comforting but it wasn't tears in Jo’s eyes that he noticed, but fear. Fear of finding something that was once hidden but that had now been cast open.
Jo turned and saw Jackson staring at her. 'Keep moving,' she called and picked up the pace.
Reaching her side again he spoke, 'I'm sorry about your house,' he offered.
'It was a shit hole anyway,' Jo spat.
Was she really that hard to discard her family home like that or was she in shock? He looked again at her and saw without doubt the splatters of blood over her clothes that made them look dirty. 'Head towards that tree', he said and changed direction slightly without waiting for agreement.
The tree had been a large solitary oak whose branches stretched out far over its roots. It had been a tree for summer picnics and escaping the summer's heat. Now though, it looked threadbare, raped of all its greenery and tossed back into the day, barely alive.
'We'll stop here for a moment,' said Jackson as they reached the tree.
'We can't stop for long, it'll be on us soon,' Jo panted as they slowed to a walk and slumped against the trunk. Their chests like bellows pumping away.
As they sat there in the relative calm, feeling began to return to Jackson’s legs. Looking down, he could see that his jeans were torn from the knees down with hundreds of pinprick spots of blood dotted over his skin. He ran his hands over them, smudging the still fresh blood, making it impossible to detect anything that may have been embedded. When he was sure his legs were still in one piece he turned his attention to Jo. She was sat staring ahead deep inside her own mind. The blood that was over her clothes looked different to his own, dryer. Her legs were like his but the blood on her body was spread over her without any apparent damage to her clothes.
'Look,' Jackson began. ‘Can I check you’re okay? You have blood all over you.’
Slowly, Jo looked down at her legs and continued up her body until she saw the patches of red that made the black of her T-shirt appear darker in patches. She started pulling at her top as if it were on fire, her throat beginning to moan until it reached a scream. 'Get off, get off me,' she yelled as she tore the T-shirt away from her body and over her head. Scrambling to her feet she threw it away and yelled at it with a deep course roar.
Jackson sat there frozen at this guttural animal response. She was standing there straining forward into her cry in just her black bra and jeans. At any other time Jackson would have become aroused but his eyes were preoccupied staring at the patchwork of scars that criss-crossed the entirety of her back.
Turning, she saw what he was looking at but instead of yelling at him she slumped to the floor, deflated, as if all the air had been screamed out leaving nothing inside to hold her up.
Jackson rushed over and took off his jacket and covered her shoulders with it. Below his fingers he could feel her body shaking as the tears flowed. He had never seen any emotion from her before apart from anger so wasn’t quite sure how to respond.
'What happened?' he asked as delicately as he could.
'I...I can't,' she began, her face buried in her palms.
Jo's father was a notorious drunk and Jackson had no trouble picturing him beating on Jo or her mother whenever the mood took him. The thought filled him with sickness and pity as he remembered all the shit she had to put up with in school and couldn’t believe she’d have to come home to that.
For a second there was stillness, time had frozen. The sun still flowed over them through the broken fingered branches but this was soon to end. The edge of a breeze traced its way across the grass ahead and gently shook them as if to whisper, ‘hey, remember me?'
Standing up Jo slipped her arms into the coat and wiped her nose and face with the sleeve. 'We'd better move,' she whispered.
With a sudden weariness they both began to run, instinctively following a straight path ahead from the one they had been carving behind.
Both were deep within their own thoughts as they ran in silence. Jackson unable to shake the image of how those marks could have been made. The terrified girl slumped low as a stick or belt struck across her skin, tearing deep fissures as it made contact, held by the one man who was supposed to prevent harm coming to her. No wonder the weak words of the bullies barely registered. They were probably the easiest part of her day.
He thought about that moment earlier when he was looking at her home and more questions came flooding into his mind. Whose blood was she covered in? What was that flash in the window? Were her parents really not home that early on Sunday morning? Pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place along with his footfalls and he didn‘t like the picture they were forming.
Jo was equally lost in herself, unable to comprehend the impossible events of the morning. Had they really happened? Had she really done that?
Something caught her attention in the distance that brought her back. 'Look,' she pointed.
Jackson followed her finger until he saw what she had spotted. From the long grass ahead he could see the wide wing tips of a large bird, its cries becoming audible the closer they came. Jackson recognised the feathers as that of the buzzard he was searching for earlier. It appeared to be bouncing up and down, unable to fly and he thought that it had become caught in wire or injured by flying debris somehow.
As they got closer they ducked and moved slowly so as not to be seen. The last thing they needed was to be attacked by a bird of prey. Approaching though, they could see that the bird appeared to be distressed from something on the ground and not an injury. Over the grass they peered and saw a young fledgling, flapping its wings but unable to stay upright.
Despair swelled in Jackson's stomach, he instinctively wanted to run over to take care of the creature. He recalled the argument he had with his parents when they told him that they wanted, no needed him to pick up more work around the farm so that he could follow them into the family business. Jackson tried to make it clear that he wanted to leave the state for a college that offered a course that allowed him to become a vet, but they did not want to hear it. He remembered his father laughing at him for living on a farm with no animals and wanting to become a vet. His mother looked more worried as if the family itself was in jeopardy if he left. The turmoil of his choice was what had led him out so early that morning, had led him here. He looked at the animal with pity and a deep need to help. Yet he wouldn’t allow his thoughts to dwell on his parents.
'You have to scare the mother away,' Jackson said. 'I need to check the baby'.
'Are you insane? That storm is on our ass, we don't have time to stop’. Looking behind, they saw the approaching end of their peace approaching.
'We have to at least try to help,' Jackson pleaded, his face becoming resolute.
With another quick glance behind she relented, 'okay, just one minute'. With that she sprang forward waving her arms and shouting as loud as she could. The bird caught sight of her and flew up crying and circling, refusing to go far.
Jackson rushed to the baby and cradled it in his hands. He didn't know much about the animal but he could see that its wing was broken and would be unable to fly to safety along with its mother. There was nothing he could do, the bird would be taken as soon as the wind arrived, carried into a frightening and painful death.
'Well,' shouted Jo over her shoulder, still flapping.
Jackson shook his head. She knew what that meant.
They began to notice the strength of the wind increasing. Jackson knew he had a choice. He could either let the bird be dragged to its death by the storm, probably taking its mother with it or he could give it a quick, clean death so the mother would know it had passed and would leave. He hated making decisions which was why they usually took time and effort but he had neither. As he sat there Jo came over and both started to struggle against the approaching tempest.
'Well!' Jo repeated with a little more urgency.
With tears in his eyes Jackson scrambled around to find a nearby rock. Digging it out of the earth like Excalibur, he raised it above his head. What must its mother be thinking? As a flurry of dust swept his hair across his face, he brought the rock down on the animal. A shriek erupted from the sky as if the mother knew what had just happened. They both stepped back allowing the bird to land and approach. It began nudging the lifeless mass with its beak, knowing that there was a change to its offspring that it couldn’t quite believe.
They turned and started out again, refusing to look back at what they had done, what they had to do. They ran straight ahead again without even looking up when suddenly they came face to face with the edge of the column that exploded by their side.
'Shit!' yelled Jo. 'It's turning'.
There was no doubt that the path they were on was going to lead them straight into the line of danger. They quickly banked 45 degrees and headed back towards the centre but the storm was gaining momentum. A feeling began to grow across them as if they were running tied to an invisible rubber band who at any moment would catapult them backwards to their doom. The booming noise of the rolling wall behind them increased with the houses, cars and animals that had been swallowed up already and were being tossed around in an inescapable swirling ballet.
Small pieces of debris swirled around the air around them along with the earth from below their feet that started to rise like a magician's levitation trick as the circulating mass moved forward. Both had to raise their hands to their faces to protect what vision they had from the cloud that was beginning to envelop them. They were being buffeted left and right as they strode forward. Jackson had a memory leap out of him as his brain tried to find a desperate link to hope. He recalled the ancient tale of Achilles and the tortoise from his History class where, with a little head start, the tortoise bragged that he could never be overtaken; that as Achilles reached halfway towards him the tortoise would have already moved forward and that would hold for the next distance and the next making it impossible for Achilles to catch him. Oh how he wished that were based on reality.
From the brown darkness ahead came hurtling a fractured portion of fence post. Jackson had no time to respond and barely managed to move his body as the missile struck deep in his left hand. He instantly dropped and cried in pain. Jo was there immediately looking at the inch thick steak that was lodged through his palm. Jackson was engulfed in pain as the world around him began to dissolve. They stared at each other expecting to be swallowed at any moment. The storm however appeared to be waiting; its progress paused as if toying with their lives. Jo dragged him to his feet and pointed forward. With a nod they both stumbled ahead.
The torrent of air around them began to decrease as they moved closer to the centre; the edge of the patch of sunlight stretched out in front of them. Reaching its relative safety they were dazed like Alice after being thrown from one extreme to another; from the unyielding border of certain death to a bright summer’s day a few feet away; yet they could not stay within this collapsing bubble forever.
Catching their breath, they both slowed. Jackson dropped to one knee clutching the wrist of his damaged hand. Jo knelt beside him.
'It looks bad,' she said.
'No shit, and the pain hasn't really started yet.’ He looked at her and before he knew why he asked, 'What happened in your house this morning?'
Jo looked away. She had nowhere to run and would probably die with him in here before they ever found safety. They were now off course from the pumping station and there was nothing ahead for miles. What did she have to lose? She turned back to face him.
'My dad,' she began, her voice catching in her throat, 'gave me those scars. I’d been saving money for months, to get a ticket out of here. This morning he found it. He yelled at me…laughed at me and took it. I snapped and I...I…'
She stopped, she didn't need to finish.
Jackson nodded. That all happened on the other side of the storm and it felt like that place didn't exist anymore.
‘What about your mom?’ he asked.
‘She left us last month. I guess she’d saved her fare out of here quicker than I did.’
Jackson nodded. 'We need to keep going'.
Jackson stood up and held out his good hand. She took it and raised herself beside him. In the few minutes they had been together they had grown as close as they could ever have been before. Looking around there was nothing within this forced enclosure but a patch of sunlit grass surrounded by a rising funnel forming its edge.
'Where next?' asked Jackson, knowing that there was no good answer.
Jo simply shrugged, staring into his eyes for the first time. A resolution seemed to have fallen over her. The inevitable breeze began again, swirling her hair and grass alike. Jackson reached up and brushed it from her face. She smiled. A large gust washed across their path, the flattening the grass and revealing what looked like a ditch. Walking towards it they could see that it carried the discharge from the pumping station that was being fed by a large concrete pipe that emerged from a sloping hill.
'Inside!' Jackson shouted, a surge of hope flooded him as he ran towards it. It was a miracle that they had found this opening but their relief soon turned to despair as they rounded its mouth. Five foot into the tunnel was a thick metal grate that prevented large animals from walking up it and would stop them from going deeper inside.
Jackson climbed up into the opening and held out his good hand for Jo. She just looked at it. Her hair was being flung around her head so much that Jackson could barely see her features. She turned her face towards the fast approaching cloud. It looked to Jackson like she was contemplating walking towards it, ending it all as she had ended her father. She turned back towards him and after a short breath took his hand.
He pulled her up into the opening and they moved towards the grate, the roof of the pipe making them to stoop. They searched across the metal grill and began searching for a weakness or broken bars that might be big enough for them to squeeze through, but it was intact and firm with little rust. The outside world beyond the lip of the pipe raged in chaos and nothing could be seen beyond now as mud and dirt were being thrown across its mouth to act like a natural force field. Their time was up. There was no chance to run again and neither had the energy. The criss-cross of metal that blocked their safety was just wide enough to put an arm through so they both sat facing each other, arms threaded through the bars, legs entwined.
'I'm Jackson by the way,' he yelled over the deafening torrent outside.
'I know,' she called, her voice lost.
The pressure inside began to build. Fears that they would be sucked out without their leather straps from before filled their minds as they clung onto the grill and each other. With a thunderous explosion they were jolted into the air as something large outside had smashed into the pipe sending a shock wave through the concrete and metal. The sudden movement made Jackson lose his grip, pain flared in his skewered hand. He could not hold on with just one.
'I'm slipping,' he yelled.
Jo slid towards him, wrapping her legs around his body, facing face to face, and held onto the grill behind him with everything she had.
‘I won’t let you go,’ she called. She had found something, someone and she wasn’t going to let that go.