THE THING ABOUT TORNADOES IS that they’re a game of odds. Every die cast has to fall against you at the perfect moment. And when you live in the small, rural town of Cottonwood Hollow, Kansas, you think, What are the odds it’ll hit here out of all the places in the county? Well, my odds have been shit lately. “Why aren’t you at the shelter, Mom?” I yell as I slam the front door shut behind me. She’s got all the windows of our old single-wide trailer open, and they seem to suck in and amplify the tornado siren. The sky outside is a greenish gold, the color of an old bruise that is faded but still tender to the touch. Mom should have left twenty minutes ago, when we were first put under the tornado warning, the radio blaring an advisory to take immediate shelter. Red let me off my shift at the auto shop early so I could beat the storm home, but when I passed Cottonwood Hollow’s community tornado shelter and didn’t see Mom’s car, I knew something was wrong. Mom’s face when she sees me is one of surprise, quickly overshadowed by a tightening of her mouth, that face she makes when she’s afraid. “What are you doing here?” she shouts back, her voice accusatory, as if I’m the one who’s done something wrong. “You should have stayed in Evanston. I texted you to stay put. You would’ve been safe in the shop.” She holds Steven’s halter with one hand. Steven is a giant, beastly mix of generations of mutts who’s begun to howl in concert with the tornado siren.
“My phone’s out of minutes! I came back to meet you in the shelter,” I shout back. “What the hell are you still doing here?” “Garrett told me no pets allowed in the tornado shelter after Missy Underwood’s dog bit one of the Pelter kids.” Garrett Remington is the mayor of Cottonwood Hollow, and also our landlord. He may or may not have been one of Mom’s previous boyfriends, too. He brags around town that he’s descended from the Remingtons, and I think that’s probably the only reason a creep like him got elected mayor. “Tell Garrett to screw off.” I bellow over the sirens and Steven’s howls. This is the most communication we’ve had in days. Mom has been conveniently away when I’ve been home, or sleeping, which is a sure sign that things are going to shit. Mom faces problems like an ostrich, head in the sand.
“I thought you would stay at the shop!” she yells again, looking frustrated, as if I’ve spoiled her plans. “It’s too dangerous to go back out now!” The wind outside picks up, careening through the open windows and knocking over a lamp near the couch. “This isn’t the safest place to be, either!” I retort. Mom avoids answering me, instead shouting back, “We have to close the windows!” Tornadoes make you realize your priorities, too. So as Mom and I are running around closing windows, she’s dragging Steven with one hand, as if he might run off and be lost forever in the storm. With her other hand, she gathers her beloved, yellowed, dog-eared paperbacks and stows them away in drawers and cupboards like that will save them if the tornado sucks us up. I’m thinking of Lux and Mercy, and wondering if they’re okay. I’m hoping neither of them does anything stupid when I don’t show up in the tornado shelter, like coming to look for me and getting stuck in this deathtrap with me and Mom. And I’m still hoping that wherever this tornado touches down, it won’t be here. The screams of the siren subside, as if to make sure that we hear the first ball of hail like a bullet cracking against the shingles.
A few vengeful shots follow, and then what sounds like all-out war. I run to the window to look at my car, a 1972 Mach 1 Mustang parked in the front yard. I’d rescued it out of a barn and meticulously restored it. If we had a garage, or even a carport, it might survive this. All I can think about as I watch the chunks of ice pounding down is the force with which they collide into metal that I’ve spent years of my life Fixing. I feel the ache in my muscles, in my bones, of every hour spent under the hood of that car. Every dent, every chip from the crash of hail might as well be on my own body. That car and I are one and the same. Years of work, years of struggle. Damn the odds.
Damn this day. My attention is torn from the Mach because behind it, nearly a mile to the north near the old Remington homestead just outside of town, I see the dark funnel stretch toward the pasture like a hesitant finger. When it touches down, a shadowy cloud of debris builds around it. Maybe for once luck will be on our side and it’ll suck up the curse along with the old Remington place. A massive gust of wind hits the trailer like a slap, and it reels in response, rocking back against the tie-downs holding it in place. A punch of fear-soaked adrenaline bursts and spreads through my middle. Mom’s breath catches, and she steadies us both with a hand on my shoulder. “We should probably move away from the windows,” I say, as the trailer rocks again. I follow Mom into the hallway, the only part of the house without windows or furniture, a place we might survive if the tie-downs don’t hold and the trailer rolls. Steven sits beside us, wagging his tail like we’re all just hanging out together on a typical Sunday.
“What’s going on?” I ask quietly, staring at the faded wallpaper, hands clenched around my knees. If we’re going to die here, I want to know why. Maybe it’s because she thinks this might be the end, but for once Mom doesn’t sidestep. “I didn’t want to run into Garrett at the tornado shelter. We’re late on the rent.” She can’t even look me in the eye when she says it. “This storm might buy us a couple more days if he’s out checking damages on his other properties.” “I gave you my half!” I grind out. “I didn’t have mine.” Her voice is barely a whisper over the roar of the wind and rain.
Mom shuts down again, her eyes closed, as if she’s waiting for the end. She tries to hold my hand as the trailer rocks, the windows shaking. But I pull away. “We’d better not die in this trailer.” Twenty minutes later, the storm has passed and there’s a fist pounding on our front door. “Jesus,” Mom swears, opening her eyes. “If that’s Garrett, don’t answer it.” “Jesus isn’t going to save us from Garrett.” I pull myself up from where we’ve been hunched in silence, hoping the trailer didn’t get thrown across Cottonwood Hollow. The cheap, faux-gold doorknob turns as I approach it, and Lux pushes in, and then despite the tornado missing us, I know my odds are really going to shit today.
When things are bad, I try to keep Lux and Mercy from stopping by. There’s nothing worse than the way Lux’s green eyes watch my mom laugh too loudly, or make too many jokes to cover up the fact that we’re huddling around space heaters because we don’t have the cash to fill the propane tank. And Mercy, well, she’ll start to poke around in the kitchen, quietly note the empty cupboards, and then the dinner invitations will start. “What the hell?” Lux says, brandishing her phone above the large, voluminous mass of strawberry-blond hair balled into a messy bun on the top of her head. Strands have fallen loose to frame her heart-shaped face and dimpled chin. “You don’t know how to use one of these anymore?” She shoves her phone nearly into my face. Mercy follows Lux inside, squeezing me in a fierce hug that constricts painfully around my waist as she smashes her cheek against my chest. “Rome!” When she says my name, it’s half reprimand, half exultation. “Why in the world did you stay in this trai—” She stops, casting an uncomfortable look at Lux and continuing her tirade of concern. “House when you know it’s not safe? And why didn’t you answer your phone?” “I need to put more minutes on my phone,” I mutter, irritated that she can’t say trailer without thinking she’ll offend me.
And because somehow it does, a little. I give her a quick squeeze and then step away. “Lame,” Lux remarks with a roll of her eyes. “Next time let someone know what’s up.” Mom got up from the floor of the hall while Lux and Mercy were talking, and now she sits down on the couch, pulling one of her books up from between the cushions like nothing is wrong. “Did you see how close it got?” Mercy asks. She senses something is wrong, I can tell by the way she’s inching toward the kitchen, trying to get a look around. “Dad stayed out on the front porch and watched while we were in the basement. He said it touched down about a mile north, not far from the Remington place.” I nod, heading off Mercy and pretending I’m really just putting the fallen lamp back on the end table rather than herding her.
“Yeah, I watched it. Then we went to the hall.” I gesture nonchalantly toward where we’d just been cowering, trying to divert Mercy’s attention from the kitchen and its empty cupboards. “Really makes you evaluate your life goals, though, right? Of all the places to die, I don’t want it to be in a trailer.” I laugh too loudly. Lux raises one eyebrow, like my forced humor isn’t fooling her. Mercy purses her lips, like it’s all she can do not to start lecturing me again about how dangerous it was for us to stay here. “I’ve got to go check on the Mach,” I announce suddenly, pushing past them both and putting my hand on the knob of the front door. It’s better if I get Mercy and Lux out of here. I look back over my shoulder at Mom, who’s reading with Steven’s head in her lap like nothing happened.
“See you later,” Mom says, giving me a lazy wave. As if she’s carefree, as if we aren’t behind on the rent, as if we didn’t just wonder if we were going to die together in this tin can. “Lock the door,” I tell her. “Don’t answer it.” Garrett is just dick enough to throw us out for being late. Holding that kind of power over his poor female tenants is something he savors. As I open the door, Steven’s ears prick up and he leaps off the couch, squeezing between me and the door and bounding down the rickety front steps. “Steven!” I yell. “Stay!” Steven’s not really one for commands, though, and he continues to trot out to the yard, sniffing at downed branches and licking stray bits of hail. Outside, Mercy’s little sister, Neveah, is stacking larger chunks of hail near the dirt road, making an impossible army of tiny snowmen at the beginning of May.
Neveah is eight, and a miniature copy of Mercy. Thick black hair, tan skin, dark-brown eyes, and arched, expressive brows. She must have begged Mercy to tag along when they came out to check on me. Steven sticks his snout against the nape of Neveah’s neck where she crouches with her snowman army, and she laughs and waves him off. I make a beeline for the Mach, relieved when I see that there are far fewer dents and dings in the heavy metal of the car than I thought there would be. “I guess we should be getting home,” Mercy says. “It’s almost eight. We just wanted to make sure you were okay.” Lux is still looking back at the trailer, probably wondering why I told Mom to lock the door and not answer it. Fluffernut, the Ruizes’ cat from a couple trailers down the road, slinks out from underneath the Mach, where she must have been riding out the storm.
She yowls pitifully. “Oh, little kitty, you poor thing!” Neveah croons, coming to pet her. At the sound of Neveah’s voice, Steven halts his investigation of a stray branch and heads back in her direction. He spots Fluffernut and lets out a sound that is half snort, half gleeful bark. Fluffernut puffs up and hisses, arching her back, but Steven doesn’t recognize anything but a new friend and charges toward her anyway. Fluffernut shoots out of the yard and into the dirt road with Steven in pursuit, barking joyfully. “Steven!” I call. “No! Stay!” But once again, Steven has his own plans. “I’ll get him!” Neveah shouts, and she races after him. The sight of Neveah chasing him spurs Steven on, and he abandons his hunt for Fluffernut and charges off toward the open pastures of Remington land in the direction of where the tornado just touched down.
“Neveah, wait!” Mercy calls. She looks helplessly at me, and I shrug. “She’ll be fine,” Lux says. “There’s nothing out there but dirt and grass.” “There’s snakes,” Mercy retorts. “And who knows what the tornado sucked up and spit out over there.” Lux’s full mouth twists in amusement, and her green eyes meet mine. “We’ll go get her. Come on.” There’s no sidewalks out here on the edge of Cottonwood Hollow, so we walk along the edge of the dirt road, kicking chunks of hail along the way.
Cottonwoods line the road, their leaves quaking and sighing as if they’re relieved that they survived the storm. Before we reach the farthest edge of town, Rick Ruiz stops me outside of his double-wide. It’s the nicest one out here, with real siding and little green shutters on the windows. He’s fixing some of the white plastic skirting around the bottom, standing it back up where it’s been blown in by the storm. I’d given up years ago trying to keep the cheap skirting on our old trailer nice and put up plywood around the bottom instead to keep out the possums and the stray cats. It’s not pretty, but it’s functional. Rick is still in his sheriff’s deputy uniform, which means he must have rushed home to make sure Marisol and Letty were okay. When he and Marisol moved here seven years ago, they’d known that the girls of Cottonwood Hollow were different, but two years later when they had their daughter, Letty, it was up to Mom and me to explain to them exactly why their daughter could name all the American presidents in order after reading a book from the library at the age of three. Letty was a Wit. “Rome?” he asks me.
“Everything okay? Marisol said she didn’t see you or your mom and Steven at the tornado shelter. She and Letty were worried.” “Need a hand?” I ask, changing the subject as I gesture at the electrical box that’s hanging off the side of their house by one bent screw. A cottonwood branch fell on the power line during the storm, and the force nearly yanked the box clean off. Wires tangle behind it, some exposed and partially severed, wet and glistening. “Would you mind?” Relief softens his features. “Of course not,” I reply, wiping my hands on my jeans. Rick hurries over to the small shed near his back deck to get his toolbox. “We’ll wait,” Lux says, stopping and crossing her arms. Thanks to Rick, she’s thinking again about why I wasn’t in the tornado shelter, and I know she’s waiting to see if I give anything up.
But Mercy, eyebrows bunched, looks concerned about letting Neveah get too far away. I can see the top of Neveah’s head out in the pasture, and fleeting glimpses of Steven loping through the tall grass. “Go on,” I tell Mercy with a jerk of my chin. One ruddy curl falls loose from my ponytail and bounces against my cheek. “We’ll catch up.” Mercy nods gratefully and chases after her sister. From a distance, she’s so tiny she looks much younger than seventeen. The dark clouds have moved out, and the setting sun casts a lambent glow over the pasture where they’re headed. Rick brings me his toolbox. He’s only a little taller than me and built as wide as a door, all of it muscle.
My talent for Fixing has come in handy for both of us over the years since our mutual landlord isn’t known for his prompt responses to things like maintenance requests. Lux is careful not to smile at Rick, using what Mercy and I call her Stone Face. Rick knows what will happen if a Siren smiles at him, though, and doesn’t take it personally. He gives her a hesitant wave. I run my hands along the wires that go into the house behind the box, smoothing the thin metal hairs together with my fingers, twisting them back into firm, capable strands. I barely feel a rush of electricity beneath the pads of my fingertips. It licks with a swift, teasing tongue. Then I push the box back up to the house and take the power drill from Rick. He’s already found the screws I need and holds them in his wide palm, waiting to hand them to me when I’m ready. Holding the box against the house with my forearm, I use the drill to reattach the box to the house.
I don’t need a test to know when something is Fixed, but I tell Rick, “Give the lights inside a try.” Before he can run back around the double-wide to the front door to yell at Marisol to hit the lights, she comes out on their front stoop. “The power’s back!” she shouts with a relieved wave. “Thank you, Rome!” “How much do I owe you?” Rick asks. I am surprised, because so few people offer money. The currency in Cottonwood Hollow is usually food or favors between neighbors and friends. “Nothing,” I tell Rick, though we are behind on the rent. “Just being neighborly.” Marisol is undeterred, and she calls from the front door, “I’ve got the fixings for a casserole, so Letty and I will bring one by later.” “I’ll do you one better,” Rick promises.
“The next time I catch you racing the Mach, I’ll be sure to look the other way.” “What more could a girl ask for, Deputy Ruiz?” I ask with a grin as we leave. “See you later.” “I don’t think you needed to Stone Face Rick,” I tell Lux as I wipe my dirty hands on my jeans. This immediately nettles her, and she tightens her arms across her chest. “Better safe than sorry,” she huffs. “You should’ve heard what the man at the gas station promised me this morning.” “I hope it was free gas. The Mach needs a fill-up.” “It was pumping he offered,” Lux says, “but not that kind.
” “Gross,” I reply, sticking out my tongue. “That dude is a meth head.” “Yeah. Well, my pretty face doesn’t care. I was laughing at that text message you sent before your phone ran out. And he was just there in the crossfire.” She frowns, her full mouth tightening. “I’ve gotten good at controlling it. I hate it when it happens out of the blue like that.” Lux is what we call a Siren, and flirting from her—devastating smiles, sparkling laughter, or what Mercy calls her “sexy voice”—leads men to profess their undying love.
Or at least to do whatever she wants. When we were younger, we thought it was funny, letting Lux charm our math teacher into believing we’d turned in our algebra homework and that he’d just misplaced it. It was less funny when the forty-year-old teacher declared he was in love with her. The irony is that Lux doesn’t even like boys. She told Mercy and me last summer, as if we hadn’t known for years already. The three of us have always been friends. Lux’s and Mercy’s faces are as familiar to me as my own, every expression a story written in a language that only we three can understand. The more generous locals say the daughters of Cottonwood Hollow have unique talents. Fixers, Finders, Sirens, Enoughs, Strong Backs, Wits, Sights, Readers, and Healers. Some are talents that I’ve heard of but never seen.
Ten years ago, when I was only seven, the townspeople thought maybe it had something to do with the water, and they had bake sales and softball tournaments and hot-dogeating contests to raise the money to get it tested. But nothing in the water was out of the ordinary. Only the girls were. Mercy is an Enough, and just her presence can make, well, Enough. Once when we were kids, she wanted to share her Kool-Aid with Lux and me. Of course since she was Mercy, she’d already shared the Kool-Aid with anyone close enough to look thirsty, so the pitcher was nearly empty. But when we held out our plastic cups, she just kept pouring, and the Kool-Aid kept coming out, filling our cups to the brim. There was just enough. She can’t make more money appear in my wallet, or in Mom’s bank account. But whatever she has seems to always be Enough for what she needs.
And sometimes for what we need, too. I’ve driven the Mach on an empty tank more times than I can count with Mercy in the back seat. And my story is nearly just like everyone else’s. Mom moved to Cottonwood Hollow when she was an unwed, pregnant seventeen-year-old who could afford a trailer when rented with two roommates. Years passed and the two roommates left, and then it was just me and Mom. She’d heard the stories, followed the gazes of the other mothers watching me, waiting to see what talent I would have. And so she hadn’t missed a beat when I’d Fixed the microwave at the age of four, sliding my hand over the grease-slicked buttons and tugging gently at wires in the back. When I plugged it back in, the microwave worked, and that was all that mattered. We ate microwave popcorn for supper that night.