Tommy lay in the middle of the train tracks looking down between the railroad ties. It was fifty-feet to the shallow river that ran underneath the trestle. A low growl made the wood and metal shudder.
“Tommy!” His dad’s voice came from the tracks in front of him. He squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his teeth. The train’s whistle rang out behind him. A dusty oil smell filled his nose and mouth as his cheek pressed into the splintered railroad tie.
The rumble grew into a roar, and his father’s hands dug under his waist, yanking his body up from the tracks. Tommy opened his eyes and saw the void of the canyon on each side of the tracks and the train seemed to get taller.
His father ran, carrying him, racing the train towards the end of the bridge. Tommy’s head bounced off of his dad’s shoulder, and a string of drool landed on his dad’s white t-shirt. They were moving fast, but the train gained on them. Tommy turned his head and focused on his dad’s red baseball cap. The razorback, posed in full sprint. His dad would do it. His dad would beat the train. They would make it.
The train’s whistle and the sound of screeching brakes overtook them. Tommy squeezed his arms tight around his dad’s neck.
“Tommy let go!” his dad yelled. Tommy loosened his grip around his neck, and his dad jumped, throwing Tommy forward, clear of the tracks and the train.
Tommy stretched out his arms as he fell, his fingers brushing against his father’s blue jeans and down his brown work boots. He hit the sloped embankment at the end of the trestle, but his dad’s limp body continued on, flopping like a scarecrow, into the trees.
The last of the train cars came to a stop in front of Tommy, but he stared into the trees where he saw his dad vanish. His dad’s red baseball cap lay beside him. He picked it up with his fingertips and set it gently in his lap.
The conductors ran down the side of the tracks, one stopped next to Tommy, the other kept running to the trees.
The conductor spoke at Tommy, and into a phone. His words were fast. Lots of words. The man had so many words. But Tommy had none.
Tommy’s feet were numb from the cold creek water but his bucket wasn’t full yet. He turned over another rock and waited for the vortex of silt to settle. A crawfish swam out of the cloudy water, tail first, its claws dragging behind it. Tommy splashed his hand into the water, felt the crawfish squirm, then tossed it into the one-gallon plastic bucket.
He used to be afraid of getting pinched by their small claws, but now he didn’t even think of their pincers. His focus was on his prayers. A ritual he’s repeated ever since his father— and the train.
Let it be that day. I went to the creek, not the bridge.
He pictured his return home. His dad would be in the back field, on the tractor. He’d see Tommy walking up with his bucket of crawfish, jump down from his tractor, pull a few ears of corn for the boil, and jog over to see the catch. They’d boil them up on the propane stove. His dad would season the water with a heavy hand while he called for Mom to find him a lemon. Then they’d dump the crawfish onto the picnic table, and sit there until they’d eaten them all.
He focused hard on that image, willing it to be true.
The clouds darkened the sky and thunder rolled over head. Summer storms came on quick, and he had to travel farther from home to catch anything. Three miles of creek between him and home picked clean of crawfish. He lifted the bucket by its wire handle and climbed up the bank. He’d make his way home between the creek and the corn fields, then maybe cut through some farmland to save time.
Through the tall grass and past the dirt road that split the cornfields, a gust of wind threatening to take off his dad’s cap. He pulled it down tight and heard voices ahead of him. It was his sister Samantha and her boyfriend Nate. The wind made the grass sway and he caught a glimpse of his sister’s red shirt where she and her boyfriend lay talking. Tommy crouched down and moved closer.
“Sam, get that crap off your face, you’re still my little girl,” Samantha said.
“Oh man,” Nate said.
They were talking about his dad. He inched his way closer.
“It’s bad enough that he’d picked me up from school in that trashy-old pickup, he had to yell at me in front of everybody… Jill laughed the loudest… high pitched fake laugh. I cried the whole way home.”
“Why do you think of that?” Nate asked.
“Because,” Samantha said. “The next weekend he took me to the mall. He said we were going shopping. I was still mad at him so I wasn’t very nice. When we got there he took me to a salon and told them, her hair needs to be prettified. They gave me layers and curled it up. Then we went to a makeup counter.” Tommy stopped a few feet away from them. The sounds of pincers and tails clicking were covered up by the wind swishing the grass. “They showed me how to do my foundation and around my eyes. What bronzer was. Dad bought it all. This big bag full of makeup. And then we drove home. He had the game on and I was looking through my makeup, then he turned the game off and said, ‘You’ll always be my little girl, no matter how old you look.’”
They stopped talking. Samantha sniffed. Then a phone buzzed. “We’d better find your brother. My mom’s been texting me weather reports,” Nate said. “A storm’s coming.”
“He’s just down the creek a bit,” she said. “It’s where he always is. But I don’t want to go back yet.”
“Is it still pretty bad there?” Nate asked.
“No. I don’t know. I don’t like being there, in the house. It doesn’t feel right. I think that’s why Tommy takes off all the time. Mom keeps sending me out to find him, acting like she cares at least.”
A gust of wind made the grass lay down. Tommy went to his belly.
“You know she cares. Of course she cares. She’s your mom.”
“I know. She’s got a lot to deal with, running the farm and all, it’s just, at night, when we’re all at home, that’s when it sucks the worst. Mom just talks to herself about what she has to do the next day and Tommy, well you know, he doesn’t talk at all.”
“Not a word? Still?”
“I can’t even stand to be around him anymore. He was with Dad when he died and he won’t tell me anything— “
Tommy stood up and dumped the bucket of crawfish onto his sister and Nate. She let out a high pitched scream. Nate jumped up brushing at his pants, and Samantha squirmed on her back, kicking her legs, the crawfish flapping their tails and flopping on her stomach. Nate bent down and brushed the remaining crawfish off of her.
“Tommy! I’m going to kill you!” Samantha said. Tommy ran back the way he’d came and turned up the dirt road next to the cornfield. “Get him Nate!” Tommy ran faster. A gust of wind blew his dad’s hat off his head as footsteps pounded behind him. Nate’s hand touched his shoulder and Tommy leaped towards the cornfield, but Nate grabbed him around his waist.
Tommy kicked his legs and thrust his elbows at him.
“Tommy, stop.” Nate pinned his arms to his side and held him down. “Just stop.”
Samantha walked up shaking her head. She had their dad’s hat in her hand. “Damn it Tommy.”
“It’s okay Sam.” Nate shrugged. “It was kind of funny.” Her arms crossed, her jaw clenched. “Okay, it wasn’t that funny.” A strong gust made the corn lay down in a giant wave. “If I let you go, do you promise not to run?”
Tommy stopped struggling and nodded his head. Nate’s grip slackened and Tommy tried to break free, but Nate pinned him down again.
“I’m serious, we need to get home. My phone has been going off like crazy. My mom’s been freaking out about— “
They all knew what it meant. Tornado warning, get to shelter.
Samantha thrust their father’s hat into Tommy’s chest and grabbed him by the arm. “Come on!” She started back towards the creek but Nate stopped her.
“Wait. My house is closer,” Nate said. He grabbed Samantha’s hand and pulled her in the other direction. “There is a couple shelters closer, if it gets bad.” They ran against the wind, following Nate up the dirt road. Dust and weeds pelted them. Tommy turned his head to the side, his father’s hat clenched in his hand, he shielded his face with his arm. The siren’s wail could hardly be heard beneath the sound of the wind.
“This way.” Nate pulled Tommy and Samantha forward.
Just past the first field they came up on an old farm house. It had a giant maple tree in the back yard that had split down the center. Half of the tree lay across the yard blown down, the other half thrashed in the wind threatening to break off at its trunk.
Nate ran ahead of them, straight to the mass of branches and leaves. He pulled at the limbs and Samantha helped him bend the branches.
“Get in!” Nate yelled. Tommy moved closer. The dark opening of a storm shelter, the branches pinning the door open. Samantha and Nate held the branches while Tommy climbed in.
Squeezing through the opening, he found a round metal handrail. He descended the steep metal steps into the dark shelter. His eyes were adjusting to the small amount of light that seeped in from the outside. It was deep, more than ten feet, but it was only about six feet wide. The concrete walls were starting to crumble in spots and the steps were more like a ladder with a handrail than a staircase. Tommy turned to face it and backed down. Samantha followed him in, her body blocking the light from the opening.
Something was at the bottom, laying across the last few steps. Maybe a bag of supplies, Tommy pushed at it with his foot. Then the light from above flashed across the white shirt and jeans. Tommy scrambled to climb back up the steps, but his shoes were wet from the rain. He slipped on the steps and fell down onto the body. Pushing at the body, he scurried away from it and pushed his back against the wall. The shelter was small, if he stretched his foot out, he could touch one of the body’s brown work boots. With his dad’s hat clenched in his fist, he hid his face behind his knees, and covered the top of his head with his arms.
“Tornado! I saw it coming down,” Nate said. ”The door is pinned open, I can’t shut—“
Samantha screamed. “Oh my god,” she said. “Tommy?” Her arms wrapped around his shoulder.
Tommy peeked out between his knees. Nate was checking the body putting his ear onto its chest. Tommy squeezed his knees shut to block his view.
“It’s one of the farm hands,” Nate said. “The tree must have hit him when he was trying to get in.”
“Is he dead?” Samantha asked.
“I think so,” Nate said.
A low growl shook the concrete walls and floor. The tree that had pinned the door disappeared. The door slammed, ripped away from its hinges, then vanished as well. Sticks and chunks of dirt showered down on them as the winds dug into the shelter, pushing down and pulling at them from every direction. The rumble grew to a roar as they were lifted off the ground and slammed against the walls, the dead body tumbling about with them.
Nate pulled Tommy and Samantha to the metal hand rail. “Hold on to it!”
The tornado’s vortex tore at them as they clung to the rail. The dead body rose, bumping against the metal steps. Its blue jeans passed in front of Tommy, followed by its brown leather work boots. Tommy let go of the rail, stretched his arms out, and caught it by the ankle. He rose with the body, into the air, towards the tornado.
“Tommy!” Samantha grabbed him around his waist. “Tommy let go!”
His dad’s hat was pinned between the leather boot and his hand. He focused on the razorback logo, posed in full sprint. “Please, let it be that day!” Tommy yelled. His grip on the ankle was slipping. “I didn’t go there!”
“Tommy let go!” His sister’s hold on him slipped to his knees.
“Dad! I went to the creek!“ The body was pulling him out of the shelter.
“Tommy, that’s not Dad!”
“I went to the creek!” The body tore away from Tommy’s grasp taking his dad’s hat with it. “No!” Tommy reached his hands towards the dark vortex of debris, a slurry of all the tornado had torn apart. “Dad!— I’m sorry!”
The vortex cleared the opening as Tommy and Samantha dropped to the bottom of the stairs piling on top of Nate, who had been their anchor.
Tommy let Samantha hold him as he cried into her shoulder.
“That wasn’t Dad Tommy. That wasn’t Dad,” she said.
“… my fault,” Tommy said. “Dad’s dead because of me.”
“No Tommy, it’s not your fault.” Samantha’s chin rested on top of his head.
He sniffed and wiped his face with his arm. “He told me not to go up there. He made me promise I wouldn’t.” Tommy pressed his face on to her chest. “… but I went anyway… I said I was going to the creek to catch crawfish. He knew I was lying. He came to check on me but the train was already coming. He was screaming for me to run to him.” His voice cracked. “I tried but I fell, and I couldn’t… He had to get me.”
Samantha’s breath hitched with her sobs as Tommy cried into her shirt. The storm had passed but small chunks of dirt and wood chips trickled down on them as the lay in a pile, at the bottom of the stairs.