“Wanna go for a walk just us sometime maybe?” the note said. Julie and Jake had never been alone before. They spoke in the company of their peers at Bible Study, or over the phone with their parents listening. They never hugged chest-to-chest (only side hugs were permitted by Pastor Bob). Neither of their families owned a computer, and meeting up at school was not an option because both Jake and Julie were homeschooled.
Jake’s eyes darted across Julie’s note. She had passed it to him between the pages of her Bible, and now, watching his slack-jawed face, she had the familiar premonition that everything was ruined.
Meanwhile Jake scribbled frantically in the margins of Psalm 91, pretending to take notes while the Bible Study group quietly discussed abortion and other forms of murder. He passed the Bible back to her: “How? Where? When? Yes!” his response read.
By the time Bible Study adjourned, they had concocted plans to meet in the church parking lot the next day around five. They were skipping Teen Talk, but maybe God would understand. It was the only sin that Julie had ever prearranged in her entire life.
As her mother’s radio issued its tornado warnings for the week, Julie remembered the tornado that killed Mr. Wilkins’ son’s Golden Retriever (the only known fatality in Tornado Alley). That day, Julie’s mother had let Julie stick her hand out the front door—“Just for a second,” Mother said, “So that you know what I mean when I say, ‘Even when God’s quiet, something’s coming.’” That afternoon, standing on her front porch with her palms aloft—her fingers twitching in the breeze—Julie learned there is a moment right before the windows break when the wind chimes are silent. While everything around you holds completely still—every leaf, every porch swing, every blade of grass—something like a storm whistles in your ears.
Julie turned down the volume on the radio. If she went into the basement during every tornado warning, she’d have grown up in the basement. Plenty of people went about their business while the sirens blared, taking joyrides or even going for walks in those weird new subdivisions, where construction had halted as soon as the recession hit. (Julie and her sister Mary weren’t allowed anywhere near those mini mansions, because apparently kids did drugs there.) But aside from a few toppled half-built-homes where nobody even lived, and Mr. Wilkins’ son’s dog, the weather had never caused any real casualties that Julie could think of besides maybe her social life.
That night, as Julie lay in the lower bunk below Mary, she wondered what Jake’s stomach looked like while reassuring herself that nobody from Teen Talk would tell on them for skipping. Mary’s 12th grade group would be at the hospice place singing hymns to the dying—the older kids were always taking field trips—so Julie didn’t have to worry about her sister tattling.
Julie touched her lips with her fingers to see what they might feel like to another person. The pulse in her thumb beat hard against her mouth, and Julie wondered why she hadn’t written the note sooner. Jake had moved from Colorado months ago (Julie wondered if he’d had girlfriends there) and they’d been dating with the permission of their parents and Pastor Bob for three weeks now. Which was almost one month. This, according to Mary, warranted an anniversary gift, and Julie was planning on a pin in the shape of a “J” that she’d spotted at the gas station. Just thinking about Jake wearing it made the pulse in her thumb quicken, reminding her of Pastor Bob’s pacemaker, which was always ticking audibly at the microphone during sermons.
“Hey,” Jake said, ducking from behind the leafy bushes surrounding the church as soon as Julie’s mother pulled out of the parking lot. The sun was a greyish yellow blot between the clouds—illuminating his blonde highlights just enough to lend him a kind of dull halo. But Julie was more captivated by the expanse of hairy skin between his tall athletic socks and too-short khakis.
“Hey,” she said, after a pause.
The woods behind their church were vast and lacked walking paths, making it the most private place that either Julie or Jake could think of. So they went there. Neither of them had worn the right clothes. Jake’s shorts were too short, and Julie’s long skirt kept catching on the thorns. They had only ever talked about the weather, or the Bible, or who to pray for. Julie touched her mouth and tried to think of what to say.
“What are you like?” she asked.
“Huh?” he said.
“I know you’re nice, and I know you like wrestling.”
“I do like wrestling.” He grinned. “I really like it.”
“I’ve just never known you without a million people around.” She glanced up at him. The clouds visible through the leaves were low-lying and dark. Maybe it would rain. “When I’m alone, I read our family’s encyclopedias. One of them is all about dogs. And my dad designs parking lots. So I know a lot about that,” Julie said. “Natural disasters and dog breeds and parking lots, and that’s sort of what I’m like.”
“When no one’s around, I’m alone,” Jake said, as if her question had been a riddle.
Julie shrugged. They shuffled through fallen leaves, stopping every so often to untangle Julie’s skirt from the branches. Jake’s socks were now crumpled around his ankles and his hairy calves were crisscrossed with scratches. “Mom almost didn’t let me come,” Julie said, after what felt like a long stretch of silence.
Jake’s face reddened. “Does she know?”
“No, it was about the tornado warning.”
He went back to his usual color. “There are always tornado warnings.” He held a branch so Julie could duck under. It was the most romantic thing he had ever done besides asking a bunch of adults if he could officially call Julie his girlfriend, and the gesture made her bold.
“Once every couple years there’s a little one that whips through,” she said. “Like, some windows will break, or the power goes out. Maybe once a decade there’s a big one that like, lifts up a car or a house, or something. God took a life last year. But it’s gotten to the point where I can even sleep through sirens. Mother bursts into our room and Mary and I just kick our blankets at her and go back to bed. She doesn’t even make us get in the bathtub anymore. She gets in alone with the guinea pigs.”
“Who?” Jake asked.
“The guinea pigs? They’re named Mr. and Mrs. Wiggle. But they’re girls. Also I didn’t mean she and I take baths together during tornadoes—that would be so weird.” Julie snorted, and thought for a moment she might cry, the sound had been so ugly. “The tub is just the safest place to go in case the house falls down. Mother says one time before I was born a whole house collapsed and the family was found completely alive and safe, all of them crammed in the tub.”
“No, who died last year?”
“Mr. Wilkins’s son’s dog.” Julie wondered whether Jake would run if she tried to hold his hand. “It was a Golden Retriever.” She stared at his fingers. His promise ring was cheap and ugly, like hers. “Should we pray for the Golden Retriever?”
“We’ve got a lab,” Jake said, sounding proud.
He looked confused. “The dog kind.”
“Like chocolate or yellow or some kind of poodle mix?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “What exactly do you like about parking lots?”
“I don’t know.” It was starting to hail. Gumballs of ice hit the branches above them and exploded at their feet, so they walked faster. “I used to draw them and try to maximize the amount of cars they could hold by arranging the spaces different ways. I’m very interested in psychology. I’m thinking of going to college for it. I think brains are sort of like parking lots.”
Jake stared at her. “Some dogs can live up to 20 years,” Julie heard herself say. As hail hit the branches above them, the setting sun seemed to smoke against the bruised sky, and the tornado sirens started blaring.
“I’m going to stop talking now,” she yelled over the sirens.
“No, don’t,” Jake shouted back, grabbing her hand. He squeezed it so forcefully that not even the butterflies in Julie’s stomach could distract her from the pain. “I like it when you talk.”
Eventually hail stopped pattering the branches, and began melting in piles against the pine needles. The sirens had even stopped, Julie realized. She hadn’t noticed at first. The sound had grown on her.
She looked at Jake and felt both electric and dead inside, paralyzed by the magnetic pull. “Even when God’s quiet, something’s coming,” she said.
Was it really so wrong to hug chest-to-chest, she wondered? Would Jake think so now if she tried? As she struggled to wrap her mind around her next risk, the tornado sirens started up again—syncopated bleats replacing the drawn out ringing—and as if on cue, the wind began to howl. Letting go of Jake’s hand to cover her ears, Julie pondered the possibility that somebody had heard her thoughts and considered them worthy of alarm.
“Come on,” she yelled, struggling to be heard over the sirens and incipient weather. Julie braced herself against the gales—where were they coming from? It felt like all sides—and led Jake through the forest. She could just make out grey expanse of highway through the last row of trees.
Standing at the edge of the woods, she expected to hear the sound of traffic. But the highway appeared to be abandoned. Had the truckers heard something on the radio that she and Jake had missed? Were they all at rest stops now, or roadside churches, crouching side-by-side in cellars? Across the four-lane freeway, scattered empty beer cans lay motionless, seemingly untouched by the strong winds that Julie braced herself against. Reaching nervously for Jake’s hand, she crossed the forest’s threshold to see if it was raining on the other side. It wasn’t. She could feel the wind on her arm but the blonde hair on her wrist stood still.
“Jake,” she said, watching the laces on his sneakers quiver. She could hear a freight train passing in the distance. Or something that sounded like one. If they tried to go back through the woods, she wouldn’t even know which way to run.
“Sprint,” he yelled, tugging her across the empty overpass. She skidded behind him off the road, toward the dusty incline into a ditch.
“It’s not deep enough,” Julie said.
They looked up at the sound barrier above them, a large brick wall flanking the ditch, built to guard residents on the other side from traffic sounds. Julie could barely think over the scream of twisting metal fast approaching. Jake turned to face her. He stared over her shoulder, looking pale.
Julie followed his gaze to see it: a faraway thin black wisp coiling larger with each second. Branches cracked like whips and trees disappeared with a single tug, as if they were being yanked back into the earth by a giant hand.
They scrambled to the wall, finding footholds between the grey slabs and cutting their fingers as they wedged them into rocky slivers and pulled, inching up the fifteen-foot high barrier.
Julie arrived at the top just as Jake landed softly on the other side.
“You can do it,” he yelled.
She straddled the wall, preoccupied by the appearance of blood on her hands. Her promise ring had bent and was now digging into her finger. She tried to tug it off, but it remained stuck. Her heart pounded so loudly in her ears that everything else sounded murky, as if underwater. Jake’s voice faded in the distance. Then the volume of the world returned.
“I said jump, Julie!”
Weakly, she swung a leg over.
“I’ll catch you. Just let go!”
Below her, the barricade began to rattle, spitting out bricks, and she fell, landing with a thump on top of him, knocking them both to the ground.
“Come on,” he said, gasping for air, pulling Julie to her feet.
Beyond the wall stood a ghost town: twenty or so mini mansions, all frozen in various stages of erection. Two or three were near complete, with cracked yet colorful paint jobs—bright blue. Many had three finished sides but no front, like the dollhouses Julie and Mary used to beg for every Christmas. On one plot, a staircase jutted from loose gravel, leading nowhere. On another, a single ribcage of wooden beams protruded near a sign reading, “Drive 25, Keep Kids Alive.” It reminded Julie of the Book of Daniel. “We need one with a roof and walls,” she said. “A bathtub.”
He seemed to hear. They stopped in front of an almost finished house, bare wood with a heavy door—shingles and everything. One of the outer walls had been scrawled with graffiti and a window was broken. Jake crawled through first, pulling Julie in after him. She followed him across the unfinished floor, pulling the larger shards of glass out of her forearms and thighs as she walked.
“There’s no basement, but there is a tub,” Jake said. He reached his fingers through a hole in a door, where a doorknob should have been, and pulled it open. “Here.”
“How do you know this place?” she asked, dazed, following him into the bathroom. Blood tracked behind them on the tiles. The walls shook and a toilet that wasn’t attached to the ground rattled.
Jake climbed into the tub. “My brother and I smoke weed here sometimes,” he said, spreading his legs. “Come, you can fit.”
She stared at him, more surprised by the drugs than by the roof tearing loose above them. Then she scrambled in with her back to his chest, wrapping his arms around her body like a seatbelt. Glass shattered somewhere upstairs and she shut her eyes against the beams arching skyward overhead. His fingers trembled on her stomach, inching underneath her sweater and she wriggled around to face him, but it wasn’t close enough.
“We promised,” he mumbled.
“We’re dying,” Julie said.
They slithered down into the tub on their sides, streaking blood on the white plastic, and bent their knees between each other’s legs, noses nearly touching. Despite how bad Julie’s fingers looked, they barely hurt, and she hoped Jake felt the same nothingness; the gash on his knee was deep. “Your ring,” Jake said, and she saw that it was gone, having left a greasy band of black and one throbbing vein. It was hard to hear anything over the sound of everything breaking, but Julie was fairly certain she could make out the small thumps of their dueling heartbeats. The tiles shattered and the ceiling above them began to splinter.
“You know Pompeii?” she shouted, her lips grazing his as she talked. She had never seen Jake’s eyes this close up before. They were blue, but one iris had flecks of brown. With a single, deafening clap, the roof above them vanished into the roar of a black mouth. Jake shut his eyes.
“It’s a volcano,” she yelled, pressing her lips hard against his, trying to revive him. She helped him with his shirt, pulling back to finally study his stomach: white and hairless and soft, with blue veins showing near the ribs. His nipples looked grey and cold. “You’re covered in goose bumps,” she said, leaning against him. As he breathed in her ear, she unbuttoned everything. For a second, Julie thought that she could see the toilet levitate.
“Keep talking,” Jake pleaded. The beams of the roof were lifting, tenting against the blackness of the sky. Shingles were popping loose in multitudes, like a swarm of angry bats. “Tell me about the parking lots. Volcanos. Dogs. Anything.”
Instead, she wrapped her arms around him. She wanted to talk about the couples who had died, how archaeologists had discovered twosomes entwined and mummified, reaching for each other out of love or fear or some knee jerk thing—and what’s the difference really? She pulled him closer. She wanted to joke that now future archaeologists would know they’d been a couple. But it was too late.