Lander and Ryan lay entangled on the couch in Ryan’s parents’ basement, watching Video Hits and not studying French. Instead, Ryan was reading to her from his diary, a black sketchbook of drawings, poems, and stories about a girl named “Lindsay” or “Laura” or sometimes just “L.”
“Storytime,” Lander called it. She curled into his lap, listening to a story of how L.’s mother kept having breakdowns in the city, so L. had to live with her grandparents in a tiny town she hated. L. had a secret admirer who just happened to be named Ryan. The problem was that L. also had a real boyfriend who didn’t write poetry, so she and Ryan could never be together.
In her favourite story, L. and Ryan run away to the city and live in a tall white apartment building. She loved that Ryan understood her, and maybe she loved him, too? Yes, maybe. She sat up, tossed his diary onto the floor, and kissed him. Soon they were groping at each other and there was no telling his needs from her own.
Ryan came up for air, panting excuses. His mother might come home and interrupt them, and what if Lander’s boyfriend found out? Good points, especially about her boyfriend. Yet what did it matter if, as Ryan had written, they were already doomed? She unzipped his jeans, slid down the couch, and pulled him on top of her. Which was what he wanted, right? She guessed by his fumbling uncertainty that this was his first time, and liked him even more for that. Although maybe she should have asked first.
Too late. A few breathless moments later Ryan slid off her and pulled the scratchy afghan over them. Thunder cracked as he did, and the lights in the basement flickered. A storm warning had been issued that afternoon at school, and the threat had Lander feeling especially needy. Regret and guilt would come later, likely at supper. She expected a truckload.
Another massive wet cracking sounded dangerously close. Then the power cut out, banishing Madonna from the television. They dressed in the crisp silence and hurried upstairs to the living room. Beyond the bay window a silvery gloom was making night of the day. Wind bent the trees sideways, and the sky had a faint greenish tinge.
Ryan’s hand found hers, and tugged at it.
“We should go back downstairs,” he said.
She knew that. They could also cower under the kitchen table, or in the bathtub, wrapped in towels. Mostly they should get away from the window, against which the rain lashed like thrown stones. She thought of her grandparents, and all the trouble she’d lately brought them. And now this.
“I gotta be home for supper,” she said. “I have to go.”
“Are you nuts?” Ryan said. “You can’t go out there.”
But she was already at the front door, pulling on her sneakers. Ryan retrieved her denim jacket and knapsack from the basement. She hugged him because she didn’t know what else to do.
“Call me when you get home,” he shouted after her.
Outside, an eerie calm pervaded. Errant hot raindrops stung her, although the air was unnaturally cool. This was bad. This was very bad. She began running, promising herself she’d stay in the stupid town forever if everything could please please be O.K. The wind sent a hockey net tumbling along the street toward her. Before long, she was struggling to remain upright, and her feet rose from the ground. No, they didn’t. She managed a few more steps before the wind lifted her again. Yes, they did.
And then she was gone. Impossibly so. Rising upward as roof shingles and a child’s tricycle swirled past her. She reached for a lamppost, missing it by inches, and then grasped at the top branches of a tree, coming away with a handful of wet leaves.
The wind wanted all of her and sent debris spiraling perilously close: a picnic table, a plastic swimming pool, a lawnmower. Lander flew higher and higher. Curiously, the town below appeared unscathed. She saw her grandparents’ bungalow on one of the many ordered streets. What a small and unimportant place, she thought. How so undeserving of all the concern she poured into it.
Yet despite the great danger in her stratospheric adventure, Lander was enjoying an unimaginable serenity. Her church, the arena, the high school—as she rose, the town slowly shrank into a dull grey blot amid the lushly green fields far below. Her inner peace deepened. It was so foolish of her to get worked up over gossip at school or stupid boys. All would be well in the end.
Eventually Lander rose high enough to see the earth curve over the horizon. Anticipation lit her up. It was terribly beautiful and so calming. She wasn’t ever coming down. Above her, the sky burned through scarlet and purple into black, and the stars twinkled warmly in welcome.
The next thing she knew—as they say—Lander was beneath a lilac bush in someone’s front yard, tiny petals covering her and the lawn like mauve snowflakes. She lay there quite happily, dizzy with the contentment she’d found on her flight and the sweet aroma of the lilac.
It was lovely there, just resting, until the sirens began to wail. She sat up, brushing petals from herself. She wasn’t far from her grandparents’ house. What luck to have landed so close to home. And to have avoided the downed electrical cable that lay across the driveway, sparking and flicking like a demented cat’s tail.
Then the rain arrived in a flood, instantly drenching her. People called out for loved ones, their panic palpable. She leapt up and started running. The street became a shallow river of floodwater strewn with tree branches. More branches lay over cars and had toppled a fence. The destruction shocked her, since everything had looked fine from up above.
She turned onto her street. Her knapsack was gone, and with it her school work and her Walkman. None of that mattered when she saw that her grandparents’ house was unscathed. Better still, her grandmother’s backside was bent over the front yard, collecting fallen leaves and twigs. Bianca turned at her call, opening arms into which a suddenly tearful Lander plunged.
“Where’s Alexsy?” she asked.
“He’ll be back soon,” Bianca said. “It takes more than a storm to stop him.”
The power was out, as was the phone. Lost without them, she stuck by Bianca as the old woman canvassed the neighbours for news. A shopping plaza had collapsed, they were told, and a subdivision had been destroyed. The hospital was so overwhelmed it was directing the injured who could walk to get help in another town. The newly homeless were being sheltered in the arena.
Her grandfather returned at dusk to announce that six people had died at the plaza. No, nine, someone had told Bianca. A helicopter could be heard airlifting victims to the city. Some had been crushed under farm equipment. Others had been sucked out of their cars. Lander couldn’t breathe, and her chest ached with dread and gratitude. It didn’t seem possible that she’d survived having been blown into the sky by the storm. She longed to tell someone about her flight, even if doing so seemed insensitive.
Her friend Debbie lived nearby, but she couldn’t see her because Lander was still grounded for shoplifting makeup from the BiWay last week. Although the police had let her off with a warning, Bianca and Alexsy had been devastated, and baffled: she didn’t want for anything, not food, clothing, or love. Comparisons to her troubled mother were assumed but unstated. She didn’t understand it either, and already sensed that she never would.
For supper, Bianca made sandwiches by candlelight. Thoughts of Ryan turned them to cardboard in her mouth. He was the only person she’d trust with her story. Too bad she’d decided she couldn’t ever see him again.
Matthew arrived around eight o’clock. He was a big blond farm kid, already tanned golden brown in late May.
“Just making sure you’re all O.K.,” he said. “It’s bad out there.”
“We were in the war,” Alexsy said. “In Poland. This is nothing.” Her grandfather had taught math at the high school until retiring last year. Country kids with fine manners like Matthew had been his favourite kind of student.
Matthew said the damage was greatest outside of town. His family’s barn was flooded. Other farms had been destroyed.
“It’s dark, people are scared, and help’s not getting through.”
“God be with them at this time,” Bianca said, embarrassing Lander. Her grandparents’ Polish accents and customs were so unlike her friends’ normal homes and manners.
“What can we do?” Alexsy said.
“Make some food, when the power’s back on,” Matthew said. “The Army’s coming from Base Borden, and the firefighters are organizing rescue teams tomorrow at the arena.”
Lander’s grandparents withdrew from the entranceway to give them some privacy, and Matthew pulled her into a long kiss. She melted into him, craving his certainty.
“Let’s go,” he said. Into his pickup truck, he meant, which he’d park somewhere secluded. “Come with me. Alexsy won’t care. Not tonight.”
He was right. These days Matthew was the only thing her grandfather liked about her. But she couldn’t be alone with Matthew, couldn’t face what she’d done. Not with Ryan still pumping through her.
“I can’t. I’ve got a geography assignment to do.”
“So what? You’ve been ignoring me. And there won’t be school tomorrow.”
“I can’t.” The need to please could be overwhelming. “Bianca’s freaking out. I should stay here.”
Matthew didn’t believe her and left in a sulk. She took a candle up to her bedroom and dug out her own diary from her sock drawer. It had been a gift from her mother two Christmases ago, so the days were off by a year. It didn’t matter. “Dear Diary, today I cheated on my boyfriend with the boy I really love. Then I flew to heaven in a tornado, or might have imagined that I did. But I can’t tell anyone because people actually were blown away in a tornado and some of them died. I hate it here, but I also love it because it’s safe.”
The writing failed to settle her, so she slipped out the window to smoke a cigarette in the backyard. It was a fine spring night, the storm having passed. She stood staring at the stars she so nearly touched, and heard them calling her to reach up again.
Three days later Lander waited in the high school parking lot at dawn with two hundred other kids who’d volunteered to help with the cleanup. Yellow school buses blazed in the dewy sunshine. Debbie was late, as usual. Keeping an eye out for her, Lander hid behind the last bus in line, to sneak a smoke and avoid Ryan’s hovering presence.
At school the day before, he’d been her own little thundercloud. Many kids were absent. Their homes were damaged, or they had relatives who’d been injured. A girl she knew was in a Toronto hospital with her arm crushed. Debbie was telling people she’d had it amputated.
Through this fog of rumour and anxiety Lander had felt Ryan’s confusion and exhilaration so keenly she mistook it for her own. And maybe it was. At lunch he braved Matthew’s presence to follow her into the cafeteria and silently press a folded piece of paper into her hand. A poem. She read enough to know it was about their time together in the storm. Another poem, enveloped and hand delivered, awaited her at home after school. Bianca hid a sly smile as she gave it to her, and Alexsy pretended he hadn’t noticed. The truth would make them weep.
The half dozen buses were loaded and got underway. Hydroelectric crews re-hanging power lines along the gravel roads outside of town stopped their work to cheer on the passing caravan. The damage in the countryside seemed random, even selective. One tree out of many lining the road had fallen. A house was without a roof, its neighbour unscathed.
By now the sense of calamity was ebbing. Most of her classmates claimed to have seen the tornadoes—more, she’d pointed out, than was possible. None claimed to have been lifted heavenward by one, or to have experienced, however briefly, that majestic calm. The further Lander got from her flight, the less she trusted her memory of it, and she still hadn’t told anyone about it.
The chatter in the bus made it easier to ignore Ryan, who was sitting two rows ahead scribbling intently into one of his notebooks. She was dying to know what about. Debbie tapped her thigh.
“Look who’s here,” she said, pointing toward him.
Lander nodded. She had to be careful around Debbie, who’d had a crush on Matthew since they were in Sunday school. Debbie could have him, if she wanted. Other girls switched boyfriends all the time. Why couldn’t she?
Confounding her situation was the conversation she’d overheard her grandparents having in whispered Polish about her mother. She’d understood enough to ask for the details in English. Her mother had been arrested for drug possession again. Now there was no chance of rejoining her in the city that summer and finishing her last year of school there. Lander was stuck.
The buses stopped by a long driveway half buried under downed maple trees. “PICK YOUR OWN,” suggested a sign on a splintered trunk. The horde of kids spilled over a lawn littered with a family’s possessions: books, a television, mattresses. The entire front of the farmhouse had been ripped off and the barn behind it was a smashed mound of hay and timber. It was the worst destruction she’d seen, reminding her of pictures Alexsy had shown her of Poland in the war, and rekindling the panic she’d known the night of the storm.
Lovelorn Ryan also had her rattled, so she reluctantly kept her distance. His eyes said he understood the situation. But did he? And what would she do when Matthew found out?
The teachers and adult volunteers wrangled the kids into smaller groups. One of them got out a bullhorn, shrieking feedback and instructions. She and Debbie used the chaos to stray back to the buses, where Lander pulled a spliff of hash from her cigarette pack.
Debbie sparked her Bic lighter.
“What’s with that Ryan guy? He’s, like, everywhere you go. I thought you told him to take a hike.”
“I did, but he’s back already.”
Another thing she couldn’t tell anyone was that she liked Ryan’s eyelashes, which were long and dark, like Robert Smith’s. She liked that he wrote stories in a town where few boys bothered to read. She liked that he dressed entirely in black, although that had already gotten him beaten up twice. Too bad that to survive in this town she needed a boyfriend like Matthew, with his scholarship to Western University, his Christian goodness, and his truck to drive her places. Matthew’s parents had a satellite dish that got MuchMusic. Other girls were jealous of her. Before Matthew, no one even looked at Lander.
The hash brought a gentle, cheerful high that blurred the edges of her turmoil. Like on her flight in the storm, though not as peaceful. The spliff finished, they turned the corner of the buses and ran into Mr. Trent, the phys.-ed. teacher.
“Where are you two coming from?” he said.
Debbie looked to her for an answer. “We, uhm, had to pee,” she said.
“Really? Behind a bus? You’re a bad liar, Lander. That shit you smoke makes you stupid. And where’s your gloves? And your work boots? Didn’t you read the handout?”
She examined her red Chuck Ts.
“Does that mean I can’t help?”
“No. It means you’re an idiot.”
Mr. Trent marched them over to a group led by the school librarian, Mrs. Betts, an older woman dressed in khakis, as though for a safari. Which was pretty funny to think about if you were stoned. She and Debbie succumbed to a fit of giggles. But Mrs. Betts was a friend of Lander’s grandfather, so she kept her red eyes off to the side.
Their job was to scour a field of flowering plants for debris. Her heart skipped to see Ryan waiting there with a few other kids. Mrs. Betts arranged them in a long line, three paces apart, and warned them about the potato plants.
“The farmers have enough problems without you trampling the crops they have left.”
“These are soybeans, not potatoes,” she said to the kids near her, which now included Ryan. This much she’d learned from Matthew, to whom she felt a sudden pang of loyalty.
“What are you, a fucking farmer?”
“Ask Matthew,” she said, loud enough for Ryan to hear. “When he gets here.”
Her half-hearted intention was to frighten Ryan away. The worse she behaved, she hoped, the less likely he’d be to puppy-dog after her.
For all the devastation nearby, the field was oddly free of debris. A few shingles were found, and the farm’s mailbox. She kept peering along the ragged line of kids to where Ryan paced the field. He caught her looking, providing an unexpected thrill. She wasn’t ashamed of what they’d done. What she’d done, to be fair. In fact, she’d enjoyed it more with Ryan because she liked him better and he didn’t expect it from her.
The group reached a swath of rutted earth where a funnel cloud must have touched down. She and Debbie abandoned their classmates to follow this furious path to a drainage ditch at the edge of the field. Some broken alders hid them from Mrs. Betts and the others. They sat in the grass and had each just lit a cigarette when Ryan surprised them.
“You again,” Debbie said. “Can’t you take a hint?”
Ryan stood blinking those eyelashes.
“I want to talk to Lander alone for a minute.”
“There’s nothing to talk about,” Debbie said. “It’s all in your head, so scram.”
“Lander knows what we need to talk about.”
“Now’s not the time,” Lander said. That sinking feeling came on again. “Later, O.K.?”
Debbie looked between them, puzzled, then waved her hands to shoo him away.
Ryan lingered long enough to convey his disappointment, then loped off.
The longer Lander hung out with Debbie, the sooner the truth would emerge. She tossed away her cigarette.
“Let’s go. I don’t need Mrs. Betts telling Alexsy I slacked off.”
After lunch they re-boarded the buses and travelled to another farm. The house there was unscathed but the roof of the barn had been torn off intact and lay upturned on the front lawn. Matthew and other members of the boys’ lacrosse team scrambled over its skeletal beams with crowbars to dismantle it. She felt lucky to be sent into a hayfield before she could say hello.
At the edge of this field a hydro crew was raising new poles and running cable between them from huge spools. Here the debris was endless: a television antenna, a toaster, a birdless birdcage, and many shards of metal roofing. Whoever found something held it aloft like a prize to show the others before walking it back to a mountain of junk forming on the farmhouse lawn.
The pieces could be tiny, and progress was slow. In an hour they’d advanced only fifty metres. A girl near her stopped and made a face.
“Do you smell that?” she said as a putrefying wall of stench reached Lander.
Two boys moved forward to investigate. Lander trailed them a few paces, her mouth and nose covered by the sleeves of her shirt. She stopped when the boys did, watching as the wind flattened the green hay long enough to reveal the unmistakable curved brown back of a cow.
Beyond the cow, the wind next revealed, was the knapsack Lander had lost during the storm. Just in time, too, since the further she got from her mysterious flight the more she doubted it had occurred. Yet here was proof, as a bit of that delicious freedom echoed within her.
She left the others gawking at the dead cow to place her bag on the school bus. When she returned, Mr. Trent pressed her into a group clearing a field of corn stalks strewn with lumber from the barn. She and Debbie each took an end of a board to walk them to a pile. Some boys, Matthew included, carried two or even three boards on their own. Debbie stopped to talk to him.
Ryan instantly appeared to take Debbie’s spot. He lifted an end of a board and waited for her to take the other end. His smile pulled her to him as he looked about dramatically.
“We’re busting out tonight. At moonrise. You and me.”
“You’re so weird. Where? Where are you taking me?”
“Paris. Like we said.”
For Ryan, France was the true home of frayed, wayward spirits like their own, and he was moving there to write when he finished school. Lander’s mother had been born in Paris, oddly enough, just after the war. That Lander had only a vague sense of the city from photos of the Eiffel Tower didn’t prevent her from picturing herself and Ryan there.
Debbie sidled up to them.
“What’s with you and poetry boy?”
She looked down the length of a board at Ryan.
“He’s all right.”
“Really? Maybe he can be Matthew’s buddy, too.”
She shrugged and waited for a smirking Debbie to move off. It’s doubtful Matthew had ever spared Ryan more than a puzzled glance, although that would soon change.
Ryan started a trust game with the boards in which you closed your eyes and let yourself be steered backward out of the field. If you looked behind yourself, to check your direction, you lost. It was fun staggering backward, until she rolled an ankle and tipped over. Even less fun was ripping open the elbow she used to break her fall on a jagged piece of metal roofing.
She leapt to her feet, cradling her elbow, then fell sideways again when she put weight on her twisted ankle. This time, Ryan caught her. The cut didn’t hurt half as much as her ankle. Then blood seeped through her fingers and dripped to the ground.
“Let me see it,” Ryan said.
A few drops splattered the white rubber tip of her Chuck Ts.
“Careful,” she said.
He glanced at the cut before closing her hand back over it.
“You’ll need stitches.”
Some nearby trees marked the line between the cornfield and the hayfield. With Ryan and Debbie under her arms she hobbled over to them and flopped in their shade. Ryan insisted she keep her elbow raised. This sent a stream of blood into her shirt and armpit, where it tickled.
“She can’t walk from here,” Ryan said to Debbie. “We need something to move her.”
“I’m right here,” Lander said. “You can’t just talk about me like that.”
“I’ll get Mr. Trent,” said Debbie, who couldn’t bother to hide her glee. “And Matthew.”
Ryan sat beside her so she could lean against him, her arm held aloft. She didn’t protest when his fingers sifted through her hair. There’d be no shaking him after this.
“If this were one of your stories,” he said, “how do you think it would end?”
“You tell me.” She closed her eyes. “That’s your job.”
However it ends, the story should include Lander writing in her diary that evening. In her haste to get everything down, she’d forget certain details of the day. The lunch Bianca packed for her, for example. The farm owners personally thanking as many of the volunteers as they could, the husband in tears. Or the small purse she’d kept on her all day, the same one she took with her that summer when she hitchhiked to the city to live with her mother. And later lost, like she’d lose her diary too, during her vagabond twenties, so that eventually all she had to rely upon to recall those brilliant days were her memories, which everyone knows can’t be trusted.
Of course she’d always have the scar on her elbow to remind her. And not a day passed when she didn’t long for the delicious weightlessness she’d known soaring over her hometown. In her dreams, it’s a joy that’s always just out of reach, and a reminder of the spirit of a girl who once believed she could fly.
Ryan never forgot those days either, particularly that stormy afternoon in the basement. Yet manners of the sort Alexsy valued kept him from mentioning them when he and Lander ran into each other many years later in a city that once seemed so impossibly distant. Ryan by then owned a digital marketing firm and was enduring some marital difficulties, and Lander was a costume designer for television who’d recently quit drinking and bought a condo in a tower along the lake. Funny thing, they’d lived just two streets from each other in Parkdale for a decade without ever meeting.
Naturally, their flame was rekindled. But Lander had a new boyfriend, and so would have said no to anything more than friendship. Or would she? She liked to believe she’d matured enough not to torture poor Ryan again. Anyhow, cooler heads prevailed. Ryan’s marriage survived, and Lander became an aunt of sorts to his daughter, one of the few people who believed her story of being blown into the sky by a tornado.
Matthew wouldn’t have believed her story, or would have used it to talk her into coming to church. But they never spoke again after that afternoon. The last she’d heard, he’d married a girl more suited to his expectations, and inherited the family farm. The adult Lander kept an eye out for him when she visited Alexsy at the seniors home. Not that she’d recognize Matthew, last seen racing across a corn field, genuinely wanting to help, and incapable of even imagining how she’d betrayed him.
“Here it comes,” Ryan said.
She opened her eyes. Mr. Trent was in the lead, jogging through the stunted cornstalks with a first aid kit, although a sprinting Matthew would soon overtake him. Well behind both, a grinning Debbie sauntered.
Safe in Ryan’s sweetness, Lander didn’t care.
The day had turned darkly cool, and a sharp wind moved over the hayfield like it was a green lake. She and Ryan clung to each other as dangerously familiar black clouds rumbled overhead. The air smelled of hot dusty raindrops, and the hydro workers and the other kids began quitting the field for the safety of the buses. Soon Lander would too, before the sky was torn open and another storm whisked her away from all that she’d found that afternoon.