Joyland

The South |

Storm Chasers

by Kenneth A. Fleming

edited by Michelle Lyn King

I was staging a bank heist on the floor of my room when my mother knocked on my door. “Donald,” she said, poking her face in the doorway. “How are you feeling about Friday night?”

When I didn’t respond my mother drifted across the room like a storm cloud. I had green plastic soldiers frozen in combat stances surrounding a Nike shoe box and matchbox cars zigzagging in hot pursuit. The night before, Sunday night, just as I was falling asleep, she’d stooped down at my bed, smoothed my eyebrows, and whispered that Rose and Malcolm were going to come out of hiding to meet me. Rose had been my mother’s college roommate, and Malcolm was her nine-year-old son.

My mother lowered herself beside me and watched the shootout between the two groups of green soldiers, the police officers and the robbers. “It’s okay,” she said, her voice competing with the pow pow pow sounds my mouth made to simulate gunfire. “It’s completely understandable if you’re feeling nervous . . . ” But that was all she said. For the next several minutes, she remained bunkered in her silence as I knocked down one green solider after another. Once the police officers had prevailed in slaying the one last bad guy, I finally looked up at my mother’s concerned face and said, “I’m okay.”

We had already gone through our storm—storm, that was my mother’s word to describe what happened to us. Our storm began five years ago, when my stepsister Natalie disappeared and my stepfather Walter abandoned us to go find her. She’d always say, her voice sounding far away, like the soft rumble of thunder in the distance, We’ll get through this storm. It was almost as if she pictured this place for us in her head, and she did everything in her power to get us there.

Rose and Malcolm were going through that type of storm.

They were on the run.

But I gave the answer I did because it was my mother who was nervous. Even though I was only eleven then, I knew that she always talked out her fears. This I realized after I announced my intention of becoming a police officer. I was seven at the time, and Walter had just left us. But my mother must have only imagined bullets flying because the color sunk fast from her face. “You don’t want to be around all those guns,” she’d said. “You don’t want to be around all those bad guys.” I wanted to become a police officer then because I thought that decision would somehow help bring Natalie home. So I wanted to assuage my mother’s fears, especially since Rose and Malcolm were willing to risk their safety to come see me. I said, “I really want to meet them.”

***

That week, as I helped my mother get our house ready for Rose and Malcolm, it wasn’t lost on either of us that we hadn’t had a visitor since Natalie ran away. For all those years, the only time that it even felt natural for our doorbell to ring was on Halloween. Otherwise, a seismic panic seized us whenever the sound of the doorbell erupted. And, in some instances, we pretended not to hear it, like the sound was merely the wind stumbling into our house.

Though the words were never spoken, as we vacuumed and dusted and cleaned, having Rose and Malcolm visit us was my mother’s way of saying, Donald, we can handle this now. She wanted to try to help them the way that Dr. Franklin helped us, because our life started to change after that first visit. All the things our minds created to survive our storm calmed at once. We felt so at peace in his office. With walls painted blue and white, and a large fish tank with bright exotic fish, the office felt like an aquarium. We could feel ourselves breathing again. We knew instantly what could help us. We went straight to the library. For my mother, it was the decor of the office, and she checked out books on home decorating; for me, it was the fish tank, so I grabbed a ton of books on maintaining aquariums. Over the course of a year with Dr. Franklin, the rooms in our house transformed, and I began caring for more and more fish in my ten-gallon tank. We had something to occupy our minds, and we were finally able to end the game we invented to occupy our nights.

***

When Rose didn’t call Thursday night, I was worried that something may have happened to her and Malcolm. Rose always called late at night. My mother was usually awake since she still struggled to sleep on some nights. On those nights she’d clean, her way of slowing down her thoughts. And in some ways, Rose calling late at night was easiest on us because Walter and Natalie were still out there, somewhere. And it still felt like picking up the phone could unravel everything and hurl us into another storm.

From the first time she called four weeks ago—so late in the night that I imagined Rose waiting until Malcolm collapsed into a deep sleep before dialing our number—my mother usually took the call on the kitchen phone and spoke to Rose with the call on speaker so she could continue cleaning. The ringing phone would shock me out of my sleep like a balloon bursting inches from my ear, and I’d sneak down the stairs and creep as close to the kitchen as possible and listen.

Malcolm’s father was a walking nightmare. For years, he beat up Rose, and when Malcolm would jump in and try to protect her, he’d strike his own son. He threatened her life—Malcolm’s and her mother’s—if she ever tried to leave him.

I never heard Rose say what triggered her into action. But I know that is how storms are. Storms form because of certain atmospheric conditions. And every storm has a life cycle, a beginning and an end. After Rose had a temporary protective order filed against him, she drove frantically to Malcolm’s school. Malcolm then watched as Rose swirled around him, hurriedly tossing their belongings into trash bags. Within minutes, they were back on the road, driving fast down I-95. They didn’t stop until they were over two hundred miles away, just outside of Virginia Beach. And for the next twenty days, they stayed in a small motel by the water, where Malcolm played on a quiet beach for hours, until the setting sun started to melt the sky. Rose would just watch Malcolm as he dashed toward the waves and then raced back up the sand. One time, while she dried him off, Malcolm said, “We’re safe here.”

When they came back to Maryland, instead of returning to Hyattsville—where Rose’s mother still lived, where Rose knew Malcolm’s father was on the hunt for them—Rose and Malcolm checked into a hotel in Silver Spring. Rose made sure the hotel had a parking garage and a pool for Malcolm, but Malcolm was too aware of the nearby presence of his father to enjoy the water. That first night, Malcolm tried to stay on guard but sleep easily conquered him. It was while Malcolm slept, where I imagined his breathing sounded like the crashing of waves, Rose pulled out the contact information she had found online for my mother. That’s what it’s like with storms. You always need a safe harbor, a place tucked away. Rose had found my mother, Kathleen Duncan, listed with a Silver Spring address. And when she called I imagine she was watching Malcolm toss and turn in his sleep, his feet kicking at the bad guy in his dream, because she was startled by the beep of our answering machine. But the words spilled out of Rose like a geyser.

***

When our doorbell finally rang that Friday night, it was just after 10 p.m. Rose only traveled when she thought it was safe for them to be on the road. My mother sat in one of the armchairs in the family room flipping through Architectural Digest, while I fought bitterly to stay awake on the couch.

The sudden sound of the doorbell sent enough electricity through my body it felt like I touched a live wire.

The front door swung open and the piercing sound of joy erupted from the foyer. I stepped forward to see my mother and Rose tightly embracing, spinning as they hugged. Malcolm emerged once they let each other go. Malcolm’s hair was cut down close to his scalp like mine, and his skin was the complexion of gingerbread. Though he was nine, two years younger than me, he was my height. He had three small crescent scars on his face: under his right eye, across his left cheek, and on his chin.

Then the both of us were swept up in the wave of excited mothers wanting to introduce their child. But Malcolm didn’t say anything back. Instead, his eyes darted around the room, as if scanning the house for a threat. It wasn’t until several minutes later, when his mother stooped down in front of him and asked him to follow me downstairs, that he finally became aware of me.

Malcolm looked dejected. “But who will you talk to?”

“Kathleen will keep me company.”

Malcolm eyed my mother. “Will she watch you?”

Rose blinked.

“I will,” my mother said.

“See,” Rose said. “She’ll watch me.”

Malcolm studied my mother.

“I need some time, Malcolm.”

“How long?”

Rose cupped her son’s chin in her hand. “How does half an hour sound?”

Malcolm looked down at his wrist watch and moved his finger along the numbers, and then he pressed some tiny buttons on the side.

I led him downstairs and turned on the television and DVD player and prepared to introduce Malcolm to my favorite show, Storm Chasers. I wanted him to see how Team Dominator raced through dangerous conditions and tracked storms so I could explain all the things that I learned about tornadoes. How the warm air flows up from the Gulf of Mexico and has a mighty clash with the cold air pushing down from Canada, like troops in a war, creating an instability in the atmosphere that allows for the formation of supercell thunderstorms. And as the warm air continues to rise, it creates a rotating updraft, which leads to a tornado. That’s how it was between Walter and Natalie. Even though she was sixteen, Walter wouldn’t allow Natalie to go to the movies, or out on dates, or for boys to call the house. And Natalie would storm out of the house. She began dog walking just so she had somewhere to go. But when Natalie ran off in the middle of the night, my mother and I viewed our storm with the same set of eyes: Walter turned the basement into a sort of crime lab, where he pinned photographs of Natalie onto a bulletin board and stared at each photograph as if could hear Natalie whispering to him, Where are you? His efforts led him to a little girl on a magenta-colored bike in a nearby neighborhood. She’d seen Natalie walking dogs with a man that also lived in the neighborhood. Walter trotted behind the girl as she pumped her tiny little legs on her bicycle to a house with a “For Rent” sign staked in the yard. “He had two big dogs. They were scary.” Four months after Natalie disappeared, we received a postcard. She said she was so happy, not to worry about her. It was postmarked North Carolina. Then eight months after that, a letter from North Carolina. So much has happened, it read. May come home in the next few days to see you all. Always thinking about you guys. Two weeks passed with no sign of Natalie. There was nothing my mother and I could do as we watched Walter cram his belongings into his Volvo station wagon and back out of the driveway.

But Malcolm showed no interest in the show. He’d only glance at the screen for a couple of minutes and then lower his eyes, as if he’d already lived through such things. Malcolm slid off the cream-colored sectional and pulled his knees to his chest. He looked at his watch. He glanced at the coffee table with the 1500-piece jigsaw puzzle scattered across the surface. The puzzle was our first attempt to manage staying in the house after Walter packed up his belongings and headed south. We even threw away the box to make completing the puzzle more challenging, but we gave up and started driving, cruising slowly down dark streets of unfamiliar neighborhoods, gazing at the lighted houses that I imagined were full of happy families. It was during one of those nights during the Christmas season that we invented the game that occupied our nights. While we were driving through a neighborhood of mansions with lawns decorated with reindeer and candy canes and Santa Claus and his elves, I pointed to one of the houses on my mother’s side of the road. “I’m going to buy you that house.” The house was easily six times the size of ours, emerging from the ground like a castle. My mother flashed an impressed smile. After that, she’d stride into my room at night and say, “Let’s go find my dream home.”

As Malcolm studied the puzzle, it occurred to me that maybe my mother and I always froze in front of the puzzle because the scattered pieces reminded us too much of our storm. We were like those homeowners who returned to find their house crumbled into a million little shards.

Malcolm looked at his watch again. The longer we sat in the family room, the more I wanted to show Malcolm I understood him. I wanted to sneak Malcolm upstairs and show him Natalie’s old room. “This is where Natalie slept,” I would whisper. “She disappeared.” I would tell him how, after Natalie ran away, I started opening the door to Natalie’s room at night just before bed and turning on her desk lamp. I did it in case Natalie came home in the middle of the night so she wouldn’t have to enter a dark house. It was the vigil I performed nightly to help bring Natalie home.

Each morning I’d find the desk lamp turned off, her bedroom door closed. It wasn’t until the morning after Walter left that I discovered he was the one turning off the light, the one closing the door. That morning, as I brushed my teeth, I saw the door still open and the desk lamp still on. When I imagine Walter dragging himself up the stairs after staying in the basement for nearly the entire night, I wondered how he managed not to crumble when taking those last few steps up the staircase. “But he never told me to stop,” I imagined telling Malcolm. But why didn’t he? Maybe Walter kept quiet because he was hoping what I was hoping, and he was willing to face that kind of death to bring her home.

Malcolm’s watch beeped after thirty minutes elapsed and he marched out of the room.

Malcolm,” whined Rose. I peeked just over the top step. She was sitting across from my mother at the kitchen table. “Honey, I need more time.”

“But . . . ” His chin dropped to his chest. Rose rubbed small circles into his back, but Malcolm refused to lift his face. He said, “How long?”

Rose lifted the arm on which Malcolm wore his watch and used her finger to indicate a time.

Malcolm looked at the watch as though the time she gave him was too far away. Then he closed his eyes and sighed. I scrambled back down the stairs. When Malcolm returned to his place on the carpet, he was as quiet as the sky after rainfall. He yawned, and that brought a renewed intensity to his face. He was angry with himself for getting tired. Then I yawned. Suddenly, we were both struggling to stay awake. But then he did something that surprised me. Malcolm extended his legs underneath the coffee table and began assembling the puzzle pieces into piles. Malcolm saw the puzzle differently than me and my mother, as if his eyes could calculate the probability of the pieces fitting together. He started adding pieces to the tiny part of the bottom right border that my mother and I had assembled. I tried to force myself to remain awake, but my eyes couldn’t hold off the weight of sleep any longer. When my mother woke me up, Rose and Malcolm were gone.

***

The next time I saw Malcolm it was four days later, a Tuesday night. I was already in bed when the doorbell rang. But how could I sleep when I knew Rose and my mother were having intense discussions in the kitchen, when Malcolm was downstairs working on the puzzle. The last time, Malcolm accomplished more in one night than my mother and I had in years. So I snuck out of my room and crept down the stairs until I was two steps from the bottom.

“He’s parked far up the block from my mother’s house. He’s waiting for me to show up.”

“There has to be another way,” my mother said.

“He’ll do anything to get his son back. That’s why my mother won’t come out of the house and is clutching my father’s old gun. I can’t put her through this anymore.”

“But—”

“I won’t let him hurt my mother,” Rose said. “And as long as I’m alive, he won’t hurt Malcolm ever again.”

“Okay,” gasped my mother.

“It’s either me or him,” Rose said. “If it’s me, then I know he will never get out and Malcolm will always be safe. But it can never be Malcolm. No harm can come to him.”

Though it seemed a response was expected from my mother, silence roamed around the room.

“Kathleen,” Rose said. “I’m not going to be one of those women who end up dead because they believed a piece of paper was going to keep them safe.”

Then they were both silent.

It was Rose who broke the silence. “I told my mother, I said the minute he starts parking closer to house, call me. And I’m going to speed past his car and dash for my mother’s door, as if I’m in a hurry to go somewhere. It’ll work. He’ll think his son is inside the house.”

“But why can’t she just call—”

I’m going to call the police, Kathleen.” Rose said. “I’ll wait for as long as I can. But I’m not going to hide behind some door, praying that the hinges hold.”

The room was so silent I could hear the low hum of my fish tank. Rose finally said, “I want you to come with me to the range tomorrow.”

My mother gasped, “I can’t.” But it was the way she gasped that told me my mother was looking down at her hands.

Then I heard footsteps coming from downstairs, and I rushed up the stairs.

“I lost track of time,” Malcolm said.

“Honey,” Rose said. She let that hang in the air awhile. I pictured Rose raising her hand to Malcolm’s chin, rubbing circles into his back. “Even if you’re downstairs, as long as you’re near me, I feel safe.”

Something distracted Malcolm again because Rose said, “It’s okay, go ahead. I’m right here.”

Then I heard the slow shuffle of his feet, and I had to fight the urge to launch like a fighter jet down the steps. His eyes had discovered my fish tank, his eyes probably dancing back and forth from the bright fish to the pink rocks.

“Are they sleeping?” Malcolm asked.

It was my mother who answered him. “I’m not sure.”

I wanted to tell him everything about my fish, how fish have no eyelids and can sleep with their eyes open. I could imagine Malcolm staring at the fish, his eyes tracking their movements, thinking, wishing he could sleep like a fish.

***

I wondered what Rose saw when she left our house that night. When we were driving at night during our storm, I never imagined parents not talking to one another, or a parent and a teenager arguing, or a teenage girl running away. So when Rose pulled into our driveway at night and turned off the engine, I wondered what about our house made her feel safe enough for them to open their doors. Maybe our house finally looked like all those houses on the road, as if it was impervious to storms.

***

I noticed my mother’s hands trembling the next evening. “Are you okay?” I was within an arm’s length of her, but she didn’t seem to hear me. I shouted, “Mom!”

Her face winced at the sound of my voice.

“What’s wrong?”

“Your mother has a headache.”

“But your arm,” I said, pointing. “You’re shaking.”

“It’s just nerves.”

Then I remembered the conversation from last night. “Something happened today?”

“Donald,” my mother said. “Don’t be worried.”

I hadn’t seen my mother this shaken up in a long time. Her arm would keep on trembling if I didn’t lure her from out of her prison at the kitchen table. So I asked her the first thing that came to mind—and once I said it, it even surprised me. I said, “We could go for a drive.”

A weak smile spread across her face. She said, “We haven’t done that in a while.”

The car ride felt different than all the others. As we drove through neighborhoods that were now only vaguely familiar, we weren’t looking for comfort. The farther she drove, the more the trembling in her arms subsided.

And then something beautiful occurred. My mother and I looked at each other—we were both ready to go home. It was the first time that being on the road didn’t feel welcoming, like we were normal in that way now. But as we turned back toward home, the silence in the car seemed to indicate something else—something was going to happen, something was about to change— and though the car ride was initially intended to quiet the quake in my mother’s arm, the car ride was now preparing us for whatever was to come.

***

We only had to wait two days. At 1 a.m. on Friday morning, our doorbell rang frantically, like a wind chime trapped inside a violent gale.

Before I reached the stairs I heard Malcolm crying. I heard the front door opening and closing. Malcolm had one hand latched onto Rose’s forearm and his other arm covered his eyes. Next to the front door there were three cardboard boxes of clothes. My mother was seated on the bottom step and was holding a thick brown envelope. I sat down next to her. Rose’s eyes were wide with electricity, as if everything was rotating fast.

She stooped down so she was eye-level with Malcolm but he refused to lift his head. “Please,” she said and he finally looked up. “You’re staying with Kathleen awhile.” She waited for Malcolm to nod his head. “You’re going to keep her safe the way you kept me safe. And you’re going to treat Donald like he’s your brother.” And then Rose looked at me. “Same goes for you.”

My mother walked over to Malcolm and gently led him away from Rose.

Malcolm lunged for Rose when she shot toward the door, but my mother wrapped her arms around his chest so he couldn’t break free. He shouted, holding up his watch, shaking it like a flag in the wind, “How long? How long?”

Rose looked at him—at his watery eyes, at his watch in the air, her black eyes now soft—and said, “Soon.”

***

That night none of us slept. Malcolm ran down the stairs, crying. My mother strode into the kitchen with the envelope. I huddled against her at the kitchen table. When my mother finally spoke her voice was as soft as rain. “He needs you.”

Malcolm didn’t notice when I sat down on the end of the sectional. He was working intensely on the puzzle, his cheeks still wet, his breathing audible. He had finished the right border. It was of a winding red dirt road. I thought that Malcolm might have an idea of what the picture might be, so I asked him, “What do you think the picture is?”

Malcolm froze. He stared at me as if to question how I slipped past him. And then he just shrugged. I wasn’t a threat. He shoved a pile of green puzzle pieces he’d clumped together toward me. I looked at the pile of pieces and then at the puzzle. The only green that I could see was connected at the foot of the winding dirt road.

After an hour or two of working on the puzzle, my mother joined us. By that time it was after 4 a.m. She watched as Malcolm and I gradually assembled the bottom border. Piece by piece, the puzzle extended across the coffee table, revealing a large garden. At sunrise, my mother parted the curtains and turned on the local news. Occasionally we glanced up to find newscasters talking to each other with a flashy-smile enthusiasm we couldn’t understand.

That day, I didn’t go to school. By 9 a.m. my mother had scooted to the floor and was helping us with the puzzle. We were waiting for the telephone to ring, or to hear the doorbell—in some way, we were waiting to hear from Rose. So the puzzle kept us from thinking about our fears. My mother worked on the left border, which appeared to be some sort of gray wall. The garden that Malcolm and I were working on ran along the bottom of the wall, like the road led away from somebody’s gated residence. Malcolm and I were working with so much concentration that we barely noticed the times my mother left us to go upstairs. The first time she brought back a container of cookies and juice boxes. The second time it was to retrieve the pizza she had ordered. The doorbell never rang. My mother must have waited at the kitchen window for the delivery man to pull up in his car.

Through the rest of the day, a natural order seemed to develop as we worked on the puzzle. When one of us wanted to eat a slice of pizza, the other two would continue working on the puzzle. We even drifted to sleep in such shifts. By nightfall, we were all alert. My mother recalled seeing a girl on the cover of the puzzle box, a girl with a pale blue sundress. Malcolm immediately began sorting through the remaining pieces looking for that shade. Meanwhile, my mother continued to work on the top border, which was of a cloudy sky, with only a few traces of blue, like rain was a few hours away. None of us knew how the girl was connected to the picture.

It wasn’t until late Friday night that we started to notice our work with any enthusiasm. When my mother said, “Look, we’re almost there,” we realized how far we had come. The garden was almost finished; the dark cloudy sky of an imminent storm was finished; the red dirt road was finished. All we had left was the girl and a few small chunks of the wall. We steadied on until there were only four pieces remaining. My mother was the first to reach for a piece, and she fitted it inside the puzzle. We looked at the puzzle, at the three remaining spots where glass was visible. And then, at our own speed, we each grabbed a piece—my mother, and then Malcolm, and then me.

In the same order, we inserted our piece into the jigsaw puzzle.

The puzzle showed a girl in a blue sundress with a net in her hand. She was standing on her tiptoes in the middle of a garden. Just out of reach of her net, heading for the top of the gray wall, was a butterfly. We just sat there and looked at the picture.

We probably would have stared at the picture until we fell asleep if the phone hadn’t rung. On the first ring we didn’t move. We just stared at the phone. Then my mother stood up. I closed my eyes and hoped the puzzle picture could be true in real life—that Rose could be the butterfly and flutter away to safety. When I looked up, my mother had answered the phone. Malcolm stood next to her. My mother was listening. She was nodding her head, listening with her eyes, and then, in a very soft gesture, like the thing she was holding was alive, she handed the phone to Malcolm.