For Jan moving to a new home and always feeling like an outsider had become a way of life. She had figured it out. Every time, her dad would tell them — always at dinner — “I’ve got a promotion, we’ll be moving to….” Blah, blah, blah. Some other nameless town with mostly faceless people…..
For as long as Jan could remember her dad worked for an oil company. And that meant the family moved around. A lot. Most of the towns were small, sleepy southern towns. Nothing ever happened in these places and making friends was hard for Jan, even when she was seven years old. She had learned it was just easier to stay to herself than to endure the teasing of always being the new kid. The new kid whose name no one remembered. She liked her own company and didn’t mind being alone. From the time she learned to read, she lost herself in so many adventures, going to so many places and seeing the world in her imagination. She had made plenty of friends in her life, and they lived all around the world.
It was different now. She was sixteen and had gone to seven different schools. She was tired of it, but they had been in this small Georgia town now for two years, the longest they had ever stayed in one place. Her dad had been on a two-week trip to the home office in Houston, and for two weeks she lived with a knot in her stomach, just waiting for the announcement. It came the night her dad returned while they were sitting around the dinner table.
He smiled as he looked around at them. “I have some news for y’all. I finally got the promotion I’ve been working for.” Jan held her breath, her fingers crossed, hoping against hope that they would be staying here. She had settled into the high school finally, even though she couldn’t say she had any good friends. She didn’t miss her dad’s glance toward mom. He never did anything without first telling her. He took a deep breath and looked at her, and her heart sank. He took Jan’s hand, squeezing tightly, “This will be our last move. I’m taking a manager’s position and it’s permanent, no more moving, I promise.” She didn’t look at him. If she had, she was afraid she would break down. She pulled her hand away, and got up from the table, saying nothing. She had to be alone.
She could hear her mom following her down the hall, but she didn’t look back. She locked the door and took a ragged breath. She knew her mom understood. They had talked about the possibility many times, and she had told her mom exactly how she felt. And her mom had explained why the frequent moves were necessary for her dad’s career. She got that, but it didn’t make it any easier. She wished she could be more like Thomas, her brother. He looked at the moves as an adventure. He was outgoing, always making friends.
Her mom tapped on the door. “Honey, will you please open the door?”
“Mom, please. Just go away,” Jan said quietly. She was already throwing things in boxes.
“It won’t take long, Honey. I just want to talk for a minute.” She was silent, waiting for her mom to leave. She sat on the bed, thinking about her first elementary school. That was the last time she remembered connecting with anyone. It was the boy next door. They became good friends and Jan felt free and comfortable with Billy.
“NO!” Jan said. “There’s no need to talk or visit. Just go away! Besides, I still have all my important stuff packed so I don’t need any help.” She hated the thought of moving to another school. She moaned. High school this time, and not even as a freshman. She was a junior. Did they realize what they were doing to her, or did they just not care? She lay across her bed and began sobbing. She pulled her pillow up to hide her crying, mumbling into it, “Just a year and a half, that’s all it would take and then they could go anywhere. So what if this was the last time.”
Moving day arrived, another gentle rain falling as they loaded the truck with all their worldly possessions and started out across country. Jan rolled the window down, stuck her arm out, trying to gather those precious little drops just once more. She thought about Billy and how they walked in the rain as kids, trying to catch raindrops on their tongues. A tear fell from her cheek. When they pulled away from the curb Thomas had a few friends standing on the sidewalk waving goodbye and calling out silly junior high things to him. He yelled back, pumping his arm like he was the champ, like he was the lucky one on the block. Why couldn’t she be more like Thomas? Finally, she sat back and reached for the book she had been saving for this day. It was about a family living on a farm near where her family was going in Kansas. Soon she was lost in the warm, drier climate. She found it interesting that farmers had to pump water in to water their crops. Quite different from the other places she had lived. She had never thought much about farming, although she knew that farming coexisted with oil wells in much of the country. She felt a touch of excitement, though, in spite of herself. Kansas was totally unlike any other place that she’d ever been. She looked out the car window, watching the seemingly endless fields going by. What would it be like? Would her mom want to grow things in the dust? What would her life be like there?
Georgia to Kansas was a two-day caravan, Dad driving the slow truck and her and mom following behind. Jan thought she would die of sitting before they got there. Late on Sunday afternoon, they arrived. Dad backed the truck into the driveway and mom parked the car on the street.
“Just like parents,” she mumbled. “Thinking only about how things affected them.” They had arrived just in time to start dad’s new job on Monday morning. They hadn’t considered that it left no time for her to check out their neighborhood, or even plan what to wear to school the next day, like tomorrow! In reality, things didn’t change that much. They were all just doing the same stuff, just somewhere else.
As life would have it, she didn’t have time to worry about tomorrow, there was something else to worry about right now. She looked out the window and dropped her head. Oh, my gosh! There on the sidewalk was a family, a family with a son who appeared to be close to her age. He was walking toward her window, a big smile on his face. My word, he was going to walk right up to her window! “Why, for goodness sake, Why?” she asked out loud. Before she could reach for a brush, he was standing there, waiting for her to roll the window down. She looked awful, not having brushed her hair in what seemed like days. This might have been a good reason to brush it if she had just known. There was nothing to do. The rest of her family was now standing on the sidewalk, along with him. She still sat in the car staring out the window, nowhere to go. Nowhere, that is, but out onto the sidewalk looking like a rat’s nest was on top of her head.
When she climbed out, smiling weakly, he was grinning, and said, “Hi, I’m Sam.” He held out his hand as if they were at a grand ball and she was Cinderella. “Glad to meet you. And glad to finally have a neighbor close to my age.”
Jan sub-consciously touched her hair with one hand and held the other out to Sam. “I’m Jan.” One hand still holding her hair out of her eyes, she said, “Nice to meet you.” She mumbled, “I think.”
His family offered for them to come over to their house and join them for a hot, home-cooked meal. Nooooo! “It’s not fancy,” Sam’s mom said. “But it’s hot and there’s plenty of it.”
She hoped her mom would decline, claiming exhaustion from driving, needing to get a few things settled in for school and work, anything. But no, Jan couldn’t believe her ears. “Well,” mom looked at dad. “That would be really nice. We just picked up snacks for lunch so we could keep driving and I’m not sure I could even find a pan to cook anything in. Thank you, that’s awesome.” The evening wasn’t as bad as she thought it might be. Dinner was delicious and Sam brought out some yearbooks and talked about what the high school was like, helping to relieve some of her fear.
School started the next day, ready or not. She tried on at least five outfits, all wrinkled and none of them just right. What difference would it make anyway? She wasn’t trying to impress anybody. She chose one of the tee shirts and a pair of jeans. She managed to get the tangles out of her hair by using several caps full of conditioner. Thomas was dressed and ready by the time mom had cereal and juice on the table. Jan was waiting until the last minute to walk out the door, hoping she could go through the next two years without ever talking to anyone. But, no, of course not. Sam was standing at the end of her sidewalk, waiting. “Good morning,” he smiled and waved. “Are you ready to knock ‘em dead? You look great this morning.”
She just stared at him. Then she walked down the steps, saying nonchalantly, “Yeah, you don’t look bad yourself.” Where had that come from? It wasn’t like her to say things like that, especially to a boy. But she thought about last night at dinner and how comfortable she felt talking and laughing with him. He had pretty much given her the layout of their school politics. Who to trust and who wasn’t so friendly. She had even managed to learn he didn’t have a girlfriend, even though he was a track star. She was kind of glad he was the boy next door.
After a couple of months, Jan began to tease Sam about Kansas being “the dust bowl.” She missed the slow gentle rain they had back in Georgia. She remembered walking home from school, the air turning cooler, the raindrops gently rolling down her arms and off the hem of her skirt. She would take her shoes off and twirl around, holding her arms toward the sky. Some days, all those years ago, she and Billy, the boy next door, would walk together. She never felt awkward doing dumb things like sticking her tongue out and catching raindrops as they fell. Where had those carefree days gone? But when you’re seven it doesn’t really matter. She wondered what had happened to Billy. Of course, he had grown up, just as she had, and was now someone else’s best friend, someone else’s boy next door.
Today, as she stood on the steps of the high school, she looked up at the sky. Wow, where had those clouds come from? They weren’t there twenty minutes ago when she crossed campus to put her books away for the weekend. Maybe she would finally get to see some rain again.
She spotted Sam. She smiled and waved at him to hurry. She watched him fighting the crowd of kids, who seemed to be scattering in all directions. “He really is cute,” she thought to herself. Cuter than any of the other guys trying so hard to impress her here. So what made Sam Mr. Perfect? She thought about it a moment longer until he was standing in front of her, breathless.
He gave her a drop dead smile and said, “Come on, Jan!” He stopped only long enough to grab her hand. “We have to go now. See those clouds, it’s a storm. We need to get inside!”
“What?” she asked, slightly bewildered. “Have you never walked home in the rain? It’s the best thing since chocolate!” She smiled up at him. “Just how long can it take to get at least to that store?” She asked. “It’s about halfway home, right?” She turned to Sam and said, “Bet I can beat you there. If I get there first, you buy. You know the game.”
“Jan, stop, wait!” He tried to grab her arm, but it was too late. She had a head start, and kids ran in all directions looking for shelter. “Jan, no!” He looked at the sky again. Large, cold drops were already beginning to fall and a strong wind kicked up, swirling dust and debris around them.
He ran after her, pushing through the crowd of kids running for the building. It was like swimming upstream. He was frantic. She wouldn’t stop. The clouds were getting darker quickly and rolling toward them fast. Some street lights began to flicker on in the growing darkness. He shouted again, “Jan, stop!” The warning sirens began to blow, drowning out even the howling of the wind. He knew Jan had never experienced a tornado. They had talked about it, but that’s not like experiencing it. He caught a glimpse of her as she turned, looking back at him, her eyes wide with panic. She stopped running but seemed frozen in place. She seemed to be shouting something, but her words just blew away in the wind.
He ran toward her, glancing around for shelter, knowing they couldn’t make it back to the school in time. He prayed and ran as fast as he ever had in track. Almost out of breath, he managed to stretch his arm out and grab her wrist, pulling her close to him. She was soaking wet, shivering from the cold rain. He thought she might be crying, but wasn’t sure if they were tears or just raindrops streaming down her face.
“Sam!” Her voice was frantic in his ear, and she hung onto his arm as if she thought he could keep her from flying away. “I’m so sorry! What do we do?”
He looked around, trying to get his bearings in the dim light through the dust in the air, guiding her toward the buildings closest to them. What could he tell her? Where could they go? He turned around, frantically looking back toward the school. No. Too far. He looked to his left. There was a building, but they had just shut the hatch to the shelter. Further down the street, he spotted another man waving a flashlight, hanging on to a storm shelter door, directing them to come. “That way,” he shouted, silently praying, pointing to the man. “Run toward that man! Our lives depend on it!” He pulled her close to him, and yelled into her ear, “If the wind pulls our hands apart, keep running. I’ll catch up. Now! Run!”
They ran, Jan hanging onto Sam’s hand with all her might. She felt she should be crossing the finish line by now, but she was struggling to push her body against the roaring wind. A tree limb blew across in front of her, it’s leaves brushing her, and she screamed. Their hands were wet and she felt Sam’s hand slip from hers. She screamed, “Sam!” Glancing over her shoulder, she saw him behind her, fighting against the wind. He was screaming, waving her forward, but she could only catch snatches of words, “Go… push … as you… coming.” Dust and small pieces of debris swirled around between them. Jan was out of breath, in a full panic, ready to give up and just go the way the wind pushed. She was blind from all the dirt in the air. Suddenly, she felt someone grab her and pull her into a doorway and down some steep steps. A lady pulled her, stumbling toward the back of the room, wrapping her in a blanket. “Honey, can you hear me? Are you hurt? It’s okay, you can stop struggling, you’re safe now.”
Jan looked up to see the door closing to the storm outside. She began to fight and scream, “No!” Panic gripped her. “We can’t stop, we have to reach Sam! The wind pulled us apart!” She started struggling against the woman, trying to run back for the door, back for Sam.
Another man wrapped her in his arms, saying, “Quiet, honey, you can’t go out there.”
“It’s my fault! He was fighting so hard, he was trying to save me.” She stopped for a breath and realized she was shouting. Lowering her voice, and sobbing, she pleaded with the man. “Please, please get Sam.” Terror rising within her again. “We can’t just leave him!”
The man who pulled her in and another man stood on the steps, watching her, listening. One reached down, touching her on the shoulder. “Okay, Honey, we’ll give it another try.”
Stay tuned! Jan’s safe. What about Sam?