Charlie Wilson turned around and looked up at his friend, Jack.
“Can we do it?” he asked.
“We can’t leave him out there,” Jack replied. “If there’s any chance he could still be alive.”
Charlie turned and ordered the others to move as far away from the door as possible.
“And pray!” he said. He wasn’t sure the young man would even be near enough for them to reach him. He had seen two people when he was waving the flashlight for them to come, but after a few seconds, he could only see one through the dust and debris.
Quickly, he climbed up and joined Jack at the door. “Ready?”
Both men pushed with all their weight against the wind to open the heavy steel door. They couldn’t see anything in the semi-darkness but blowing dirt and limbs. They pushed harder, trying to open the door far enough for Jack to look around the area. Charlie was afraid the wind would rip the door off and take him with it.
Jack shouted, “There!” The kid came into view through the blowing dirt, hunched over, struggling against the wind, almost to the door. Jack shouted at him, reaching out an arm to guide him and grab him. The boy seemed to hear him, reached out his hand, and they clasped each other around the wrist. Jack pulled with all his strength, and the boy stumbled and fell at the threshold of the door.
“Get him down,” Charlie shouted. Another man pulled the boy down the stairs, as Jack and Charlie secured the door again. The boy lay limp and exhausted on the floor of the shelter, cold and wet. Others in the shelter began piling blankets on him.
Jan ran to him, kneeling beside him, afraid he might be dead. She lay down on the cold floor, putting her arms around him to help warm him, and to give him reassurance. She whispered in his ear, “It’s okay. We made it.” She wiped a tear away. “You saved me, Sam. You’re the bravest guy I know.” Jan lay beside him, sobbing from relief and exhaustion, her arm over the blankets. “Please, please let me know you’re okay.” After a few minutes, she heard a whisper. “He’s telling me he’s alive,” she said to the others.
It seemed like hours that the wind blew and things hit the door of the shelter. She was afraid the shelter would splinter and fly away. She snuggled a little closer to Sam, and whispered, “Well then, so much for a walk in the rain.” She drifted off to sleep.
Sam began to stir, lifting himself up on one arm. He called out, “Jan, are you here?” Agitated, he looked around at the others. “Hey, someone, is the girl who was ahead of me here? Did she make it?” He sat up, confusion on his face. “Jan?”
She touched him on the shoulder. “I’m here. It’s okay.” She pushed the wet hair back from his face. He suddenly reached out and hugged her tightly to him. She hated hearing the worry in his voice, but it was comforting to know he was concerned for her.
Jan began to notice something different. Everyone else noticed, too, and began stirring. It was quiet. No sirens, no wind, no rain. She heard chatter on a walkie-talkie and the man in charge, Charlie, she thought his name was, said, “Okay, folks, we have the all clear to leave the shelter. But, listen, be careful! It’s going to be a mess out there.” He stopped to take in a deep breath. “I’m sure power lines are down, and debris is everywhere.” He looked at Sam and Jan, “Will you two be okay out there? You need to head for City Hall. They’ll have some food and clean water there around eight o’clock.”
They stood up, and Sam took her hand. “I want you to stay with me, okay?” He looked directly into her eyes, and said, “I can’t promise you what we’ll find out there. Our homes may be gone.”
She squeezed his hand, nodded her head, shaking so hard she couldn’t say anything. She’d never been so afraid in her life. Jack opened the door, and they began to file out. When she walked out of the shelter, Jan noticed the sun low in the sky, dark clouds blowing above them. She gasped and began to cry. The street looked as if a bomb had exploded. And the sun still had the audacity to shine!
“Those two walls, they’re gone,” Jan said in a whisper. “I could’ve gotten us killed.” She looked at Sam. “You knew, didn’t you?”
Sam glanced at the pile of rubble scattered on the ground, then at Jan, sympathy in his eyes, “Yeah, the other walls went with the last storm.”
They held tightly to each other’s hands. Jan said, “Are you sure this is our town?” So this is what it took for her to come to realize and appreciate what she had.
“Jan!” He tugged on her hand, pulling her toward him. “Watch where you put your feet, you nearly stepped on that wire. That could be deadly for both of us.” She looked up, fear in her eyes. All she could do was look around in shock, not truly understanding what was happening. But something else came into her mind. Sam. Maybe he was something more than the boy next door. She looked at him, lacing her fingers tighter into his. Slowly they made their way toward home, picking a path through downed trees, cars and trucks turned upside down. She recognized their neighbor’s patio furniture on the school lawn.
By the time they reached home, it was almost dark. Windows were blown out and debris lay everywhere. The large tree in their front yard was uprooted, lying across the porch and smashed through to her bedroom. Jan shuddered and began to cry again. She let go of Sam’s hand and began running toward the steps, screaming for her mom, her dad, Thomas. Sam chased her and grabbed her arm. “Wait, Jan.” He looked at her, struggling for words. “We can’t go in there. The whole house might be unstable. Let’s go around to the shelter and see if they’re in there.”
It seemed all the blood drained from her body, and she suddenly felt faint. She sat on the wet ground, feeling nothing but fear, the spirit that had always conquered the world disappearing. “I just can’t,” she whimpered.
He sat down beside her and pulled her close to him. “Come on, this won’t last much longer,” he said, gently. “Look, I’ll go around and check the shelter if you promise to stay right here. Did you hear that? Right here?”
She looked at him blankly and nodded. “Okay.”
Sam looked over at the house, praying they weren’t in there. He could see that the tree would have gone through more than Jan’s room. He looked into the cellar, but no one was there, so he ran around the back to his own house. No one was there, either. Suddenly he couldn’t stop his own tears from coming. “Give me the words to tell her, please,” he prayed. He hated to look weak, but he just felt exhausted. As he came back around, she was still sitting there, her head bowed. Gently, he pulled her to her feet and put his arms around her. They cried together.
“Let’s go to City Hall,” he said. “It’s almost dark and not safe to be out wandering around.” He felt the weight of her care on his shoulders and mustered a little more determination from somewhere deep inside himself. They made it to City Hall, and Sam was dumbstruck. “There’s so many people here,” Sam said. They walked around, looking for familiar faces. “This might take longer than I thought.” They made their way to a line and waited to give their names, parent’s names and addresses. When they were done, they were directed to another room, where tables had been set up. They sat, still holding on to each other, managing to eat a little food. There were no beds in the shelter, so they found a wall to sit against. They fell asleep, her head on his shoulder. When they woke up, someone had put a blanket over them.
The next morning, they heard Sam’s name called over the loudspeakers. He and Jan walked over to the registration desk. His parents had been located and were on their way. Relief flooded through him, just knowing they were alright. “Wait!” He interrupted the lady before she could call the next person on her list. “What about Jan Harper, the girl with me?” No one was listening, and other names were called, people pushing around the table. A policeman directed them to another room, where families were being reunited.
His mom threw her arms around him, kissing him on the cheek. “Oh, I’m so glad to see you!” Fatigue was showing on her face. She looked at Jan, and said, “I’ll call your mom. She’ll be here in just minutes.” Both Jan and Sam could see the worry on her face. Something wasn’t right.
Jan’s mom was there before they had rolled up the blanket and cleared away the clutter. Sam sat down beside her and took her hand again. “It’s going to be okay, your mom’s already here,” he said in quietly. “Mom told me your dad’s company has already notified him that they’re letting him use a company house until yours is remodeled.” She gave him a slight smile. “She also said its big enough for our family to stay there, too, until we can get things worked out.” He smiled, but Jan seemed distracted, nervous.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “It’s all over now. We’re all back together with our families.”
She looked at him. “Something’s wrong. I just feel this cloud hanging over me.”
She saw her mom come through the door and ran to her. “Mom!” Tears flowed in streams down her cheeks, and she buried her face in her mom’s shoulder. “I thought I would never see you again.” She pushed back and looked at her mom. “What about dad and Thomas? They weren’t in the house, were they?”
“No, they weren’t in the house. Dad was at work and Thomas was in the bus line. Come on, we can sort it all out when we get home.” Her mom held her until they both stopped crying. “Try to calm down, honey.”
“Wait,” Jan whispered, wiping her eyes. “Sam said we’re staying in a company house, and it’s large enough for them to stay, too?” She tugged on her mom’s arm, “Really?”
“Yes, honey. Now let’s get going.” Her mom still seemed nervous, distracted. Something was definitely wrong, and they weren’t telling her. “Mom?”
“Come on, Jan. We’ll talk about arrangements when we get home.”
Jan felt a sense of dread and wanted desperately to see her dad and Thomas for herself, to know they were alright. She followed her mom, so distracted she didn’t even look back at Sam.
Sam touched her on the shoulder. “Hey, what’s wrong? It’s like we’re back to being strangers.”
She shook her head. “No.” She struggled with what to say. “I’ve got to keep up with mom. Can you walk with me?” They walked out into the bright, morning sun. “It’s just me. I’m confused and embarrassed, that’s all.” She knew that wasn’t an adequate explanation, but she didn’t know what else to say.
“It seems awkward, like that first night when I walked out to your car.” She didn’t say anything. She didn’t feel that way at all. “Jan, have I done something to hurt you? Did I push you too hard? I never meant to.”
They reached the car, and he opened the door for her. “Wait, why are you embarrassed?”
She looked at him, searching his eyes, trying to think of what to say. “Um…um.”
“Is it because we’ll be staying in the same house?”
How in the world could he know that? Was he reading her mind now?
She started to close the door, and smiled at him, “Let’s talk about it when we get to the house. We can work this out, right?”
The company house was not far from the emergency shelter, and they arrived almost together. Sam’s dad was sitting at the dining room table, drinking coffee. When he saw them, he walked over, giving them both a hug. “I’m so glad to see you and know you’re safe.” She hugged him back, looking over at Sam. “Thank Sam for that. If he hadn’t been with me, I’d be under some pile of rubble. When we made our way to the house, I was afraid you were all hurt.” She paused. “Or worse…gone.”
Her mom touched her on the shoulder. “Sit down, honey. We need to talk.” She sat down slowly, watching her mom’s face with a sense of dread welling up in her heart. Sam sat down beside her. He took her hand and held it tightly. It dawned on her that her dad and Thomas weren’t there, and she suddenly felt numb, her heart pounding in her ears. “We got a call from the junior high late last night. Thomas was in the bus line when the storm hit. Everyone started trying to get back inside, but Thomas stayed to help the driver get some students off who were panicking. Anyway, a piece of debris hit him.”
Jan started crying. “What about dad?”
“They sent Thomas to Kansas City to a hospital there. Your dad is with him. We’ll go in the morning. He has a pretty bad gash on his shoulder and they think he has a concussion. But pretty sure he’ll make a full recovery. They’ll keep him for a few days just to watch him.”
Sam stood up and put a hand on Jan’s shoulder. “Mom?” he asked, “Is there any real food here? We haven’t eaten anything since last night.” Jan noticed how hungry she was. Sam was reading her mind again.
“Your dad ordered Lasagna, salad, and bread from the local Italian restaurant. It should be here soon.”
After dinner, they all helped clear the table. Then Sam’s dad sat them down. “With two teenagers in the house, we have to have some ground rules.” They stared at him blankly. “So. In common areas, you know, the TV room, kitchen, laundry, you wear warm-ups, flannels with a tee shirt, or full street dress.” He paused. “Any questions?”
Jan and Sam looked at each other, puzzled. Finally, Sam asked, “What about who chooses TV or movies?”
His dad looked at him. “Seriously? Work it out. This isn’t forever.”
Just as he finished, the phone rang. Jan’s mom answered and after listening a few minutes they heard her say, “Yes. Sure.” Jan watched her for some clue. “We’ll be there in the morning with some clean clothes….Love you, too.”
“Is Thomas coming home? Are they sure he’s okay?”
“Probably tomorrow,” she said.
Jan looked at Sam and smiled. “With Thomas home, everything will be right again.”
They held hands and walked out onto…their front porch. Jan turned to face him, taking both his hands in hers. “I just want to say thanks. Thanks for holding on to me through the storm. Thanks for not letting me go.”
“I should be the one thanking you. You saved me. You made them come back for me.”
They sat down on a porch swing. “This is gonna feel odd,” Jan said, looking at Sam and smiling. The world seemed right, even in the midst of the town’s devastation. With Sam, she felt whole, accepted, like having her best friend, or a big brother, or the boy next door, all rolled into one, living in your house. “Could things get any more weird,” she asked. “No, wait, don’t answer that.”
Sam and Jan went through a situation that caused them to grow up in a short time. Share with us a time when uncontrollable circumstances caused you to grow in character.
Due to a time crunch in trying to finish the book I promised almost a year ago, I am rearranging my writing schedule. I will still be writing and posting here, just every other week, instead of every week. Please sign in and follow the blog. Then you’ll receive a notice when the next one is posted. Thanks for reading and I will see you in two weeks.