The fresh air turbine slowly spun, scraps of pale dawn light flashing through the blades and trickling down into the storm shelter. Mazzy Ottestad pulled the covers to her little sister’s chin. She brushed the hair from Ava Lynn’s face, watched the girl’s eyes flit beneath their lids. Then Ava Lynn shifted and Mazzy carefully rolled off the bunk. Sleep had been elusive since Mazzy had been called home from the Army, just after the last storm, but night after night she lay beside her sister because the girl said she couldn’t sleep without her there.
Another storm was coming. Bigger than the last. Mazzy eyed the shelter stock, one wall lined with canned goods, canisters of oxygen, lanterns and fuel, bucket filters to purify water, fifty-pound sacks of rice in water-tight tubs. She’d taken all precautions, but knew that meant nothing to a storm, and listening to the turbine’s whir she imagined the shelter’s roof ripped from it rivets and a great tentacle of wind stealing them off into the sky.
Mazzy closed her eyes. To still herself, she recalled a time last winter when she was home on leave, her mother still alive. There’d been a smaller storm, and they’d retreated from the house to the shelter. It’d been cold in that iron box in the ground, but the three of them snuggled on the same bunk, beneath a heft of quilts, and it was as if Mazzy was a child again, there in her mother’s arms.
“You hungry?” her mother had asked.
“No, ma’am,” Mazzy said.
“You know that I love you?”
Mazzy remembered resting her cheek against her mother’s shoulder, and her mother’s fingers, like the hand of a blind woman, stroking her face. Now her mother was gone, killed in the last storm, the military approving Mazzy’s discharge because her father couldn’t be found and Ava Lynn had no one else to look after her.
Mazzy climbed the shelter ladder, hefted open the hatch, squinted as she stepped up onto the sundrenched land. Down the hill lay the battered stable. Farther down yet sat the house, morning’s blush gleaming off its metal roof. It’d been a while since they’d slept there. Anymore, they barely ever went inside. Yet there it stood, having weathered so much.
Beyond the house stretched a long rocky hillside leveling on down to the wide river, sunlight glittering and the water like a belt of fire across the land. Mazzy told herself to remember this sight, as someday all of it would be gone and she’d need to tell others about open land and sunshine as if they were images stolen from a storybook.
They drove the buckled road toward town. To the north rose black rock steps, sheer walls that fell into the river’s canyon. To the south the sage flats extended to a horizon of sepia clouds. White light flashed in their folds. After the last storm, fish had littered the land. Chinook in the sage. Steelhead on hilltops. Sturgeon like logs in the road. Hordes of flies. So many flies.
Mazzy turned onto the gravel drive that led to the school. Where once had been a tamarack windbreak now lay a row of root craters and a massive berm of broken limbs. The school itself was being rebuilt, the building covered in sheer plastic that moved in the wind and made the structure seem alive.
The parking lot was flanked with trailers brought in as classrooms. Mazzy parked with the parents. In the next car, Olen Herzfeld motioned for Mazzy to roll down her window. Olen, a rotund woman who always looked as if she’d just been slapped, said, “You staying here with Ava Lynn, right? I don’t trust them clouds.”
“Gotta go to work,” Mazzy said. She studied the sky to make the woman feel heard. “Supposed to hold till later.”
“Says the weatherman,” Olen huffed.
Ava Lynn moved to open the door, and Mazzy grabbed her sister’s sleeve. Mazzy’s appearance favored her father, but this girl was molded eyes, smile, and spirit from their mother. Mazzy leaned and kissed Ava Lynn’s hair. “Call if you need me.”
Ava Lynn searched Mazzy’s face. “Need you?” she said, and grinned. “Storm don’t scare me none.”
Mazzy smiled back but knew the truth, for she’d held her sister night after night. She loved Ava Lynn more than anything alive or dead, loved her in a way that left her fragile. It took all her dwindling courage to fight the urge to just drive them back to the shelter. But she let loose of Ava Lynn and the little girl was out the door, her pink coat darting between cars as she raced toward the trailers.
Mazzy stocked the candy aisle, watching the minimart’s owner, Randy, screw plywood over one of the store’s windows. Two girls, the new check-girl, Kelsey, and her friend, leaned over the counter, laughing and watching some video on a phone. Kelsey wore pink pajama pants and fuzzy slippers.
Mazzy watched her and the other girl and knew they had no idea what was inside her. Things she’d seen in the Army during the last storm. Buildings felled by tsunami wash, concrete crumbled like crackers. A lone elephant stranded on a hilltop. Ten families adrift on a coal barge, mind-broke men, naked children nursing at the breasts of their grim ancient mothers. Add her own mother’s death on top of it all. Things she’d seen and felt, things in her mind yet suffering.
The vet counselor had warned it’d be rough, said to go easy on herself, on others. They’ve lived in a different world, he’d told Mazzy. You have to understand that you know worlds they don’t. You can’t make them understand what they haven’t lived.
Kelsey held the phone high as a song played, the girls dancing, giggling. Oblivious. That was the word the counselor used. This was not a bad thing, he’d said. Nor was it good. But Mazzy understood more than anything oblivious was freedom. Freedom was wearing pajamas and slippers at work, dancing while a storm crept toward them, while wars were being fought, while who knows what menace lay in ambush just beyond their sight.
Mazzy heard the motorcycle before she saw it. Then he was there, pulling to the pumps like so many others did throughout the day. The rider wore a leather jacket embroidered with a bright golden eye rimmed with red and purple flames. Mazzy’s pulse sprang. She knew that jacket. Knew that wild burning eye.
She dropped her inventory pad, hurried to the window. Could it be him? Mazzy tried to glimpse the rider’s face, and then saw his long graying beard and crooked mouth. It was him. Her father. She stumbled two steps backwards before turning and pushing past Kelsey to stand out of sight behind the lottery machine.
“You all right?” Kelsey asked her.
Mazzy dared to peek out the window. Her father stared up at the sky and stretched his back while the bike’s tank filled.
“Mazzy?” Kelsey said. The girl’s eyes were tender. She smiled with glossy lips.
Mazzy glanced again out the window. Her father flexed each hand, balling each into a fist before shaking out his fingers. Then he stood stock-still, his back to the store. His jacket’s eye studied her. Blood throbbed behind Mazzy’s eyes. She felt nauseous. Then her father replaced the nozzle back on the pump. He mounted his bike. The engine rumbled. He coasted through the lot and onto the road and sped away.
Mazzy peered out at the empty road. She took off her smock, laid it on the counter. She walked between the girls and through the store and pushed out the front door.
The air was warm and wet, the burnt sky spitting. Randy, a potbellied man in an orange vest, stood atop a stepladder, bracing the plywood to the window with his shoulder, hammer in hand. He said nothing as Mazzy crossed between the pumps to her car. Only as she drove away did she see Randy come off his ladder and begin to holler.
Mazzy drove out to where the river met the ocean. Her mind was a mess. She had to get her mind right. The beach was rocky and strewn with garbage. Waves lapped the land, breaking heavy farther out. Mazzy sat atop a rock and stared out over the water, straining to see the weather beyond the bend of the earth.
Mazzy struggled to remember her mother’s face. All she could recall was the sound of her mother’s voice, the warmth of a hand against her cheek. They’d found her mother’s car in a canyon seventy miles away. Her body was never found. While on a patrol boat in the Pacific, Mazzy had seen a vast school of silver fish, thousands of them, separate but moving as one. She imagined her mother out in the ocean, a queen on a throne, carried along by a vessel of silver fish.
Mazzy waded into the shallows. The sand and water enveloped her feet. A year ago, her father had been released from prison. Seven years he’d been incarcerated, his fourth stint overall. He’d called her mother because a storm was coming and he didn’t have anywhere to go. This was the best Mazzy could figure. All she knew was her father had phoned fresh out of prison, her mother had driven north into the storm, and Ava Lynn had been left to herself in the shelter. A parole officer told Mazzy he’d passed along news of her mother’s death to her father, and then her father had disappeared. That was ten months ago.
The counselor advised Mazzy not to let things get too big in her mind, not to dwell in the past or the future, not to live day by day, but moment by moment, alive in the simple truths of the now. He’d make Mazzy say aloud her mother’s questions. Are you hungry? Are you warm? The now. Mazzy felt the frigid water biting her ankles. She covered her eyes and listened to the breaking waves.