Slinky

BILL VERNON

When the house went dark, Dad stood up from nailing in the wood floor and looked out the picture window. Black, purplish clouds were rolling toward us. Without his hammering, I heard distant thunder booming and wind growling in the chimney. Lightning slit the sky, one sharp spear after another, prompting something to jump in my throat and nearly choke me.

Dad said, “We better get home.”

I thought of Mom alone with the baby, dropped the boards I was holding, and ran out to the car. Behind me, Dad closed and locked the front door, then strolled down the sidewalk looking around like a tourist.

The atmosphere was weird. Papers and leaves rushed past us as if they were alive and panicking. Things slapped the car and careened away. The car shook in the wind. We only had three blocks to go, but I was scared. Would we turn over and start spinning? My neighbourhood had become as strange as another planet. We parked in our driveway and I ran inside.

“Thank God you’re here,” Mom said to Dad. Seven other people were in our living room, the Torino parents and kids, Mike and Margo, Mrs. Humphrey with her Gwendolyn and Maxie. They’d joined us, I guessed, because they were used to coming here in the evenings to watch our television, which was the only one on the block.

I noticed “Tornado warning” on the TV screen. Then the electricity went off and the darkness outside entered the house.

Betty Torino said, “shouldn’t we go to the basement? The TV man said to take cover.”

Dad said, “it’s the safest place.”

But Mike screamed from our front window, “there’s a funnel!”

I ran over beside him. Lightning flashed like strobe lights and lit the nasty black thing. It was a half-mile away, wide on top in the clouds, but smaller near the ground. Its roar dominated the sound of rain pounding the house. The funnel was moving up the valley toward our new house.

I was terrified but also amazed. The funnel resembled a huge slinky toy, contracting down, springing up, bulging to one side, then the other, sliding back and forth while moving forward. It swooped up a big tree like a nearly weightless kite. The limbs outside the dark funnel spun completely around, the roots appeared, and then the tree dropped out of sight. I knew exactly what tree that was too. Then the funnel crossed our street down in the valley where our new lawn was. I pressed against the glass to see if it hit our house, but of course that was out of sight.

The rain and hail slowed, the noise lessened, and everybody jabbered at once. We kids were all by the window, adults in back of us. No one had gone to the basement.

The electricity didn’t go on, but the clouds were light gray and thinning. I said, “What about our new house?”

Dad shrugged but also frowned.

“We’re all safe,” Mom said. “That’s the main thing. Anybody want coffee? I’ll make some.” She headed to the kitchen.

The rain ended, though, and Dad went outside so I hurried behind him and we drove back to the new house. On the way, I stared at the neighbourhood again. It seemed normal, but when we went down into the valley, that uprooted sycamore tree looked like a huge, dead animal, lying in the middle of the cow pasture, killed and discarded a hundred feet away from the creek where it had been. Around it, the closely cropped field was strewn with branches from other trees and sheets of tin or aluminum. It looked like a battleground.

I checked the other way, our house. Everything looked okay.

As we parked, the sun began shining again. Dad smiled. “We got lucky.” He glanced at his watch. “It’s 3:30. We can finish laying the living room floor by supper time.”

So we returned to work, but I kept glancing out the picture window at the sky and wondered how Dad could be so calm. When Mom showed up pushing Tommy in a carriage, we all stood on the front porch for a while and looked skyward.

Dad took a deep breath. “Doesn’t the air smell good? It’s fresh and tangy.”

Birds were chirping like nothing had happened.

But across the street I could see the broken limbs poking up above the fence’s brush-line like warnings of what could have been. Dad and Mom didn’t talk about that.

A slinky? No way. That funnel was evil. It was death rampaging willy-nilly, an airborne whirlpool, the dark, hooded figure with a scythe, a sudden, solid appearance of what was always possible whether we thought about it or not.

Bill Vernon served in the United States Marine Corps, studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folkdances. His poems, stories, and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN in 2005.

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