Gabby and Emma clung to the brick wall, digging their fingernails into the mortar. Fragments of windswept damage rushed through the bathroom door. The ground started to quake, and they struggled to keep their feet from slipping off the toilets.
Gabby stretched down and pulled off a wad of toilet paper, pressing it against her bleeding leg. A flurry of debris drawn to the floor by the vortex spinning outside sucked through the louvre openings with a roar.
“Hold on!” Gabby yelled.
“I’m scared, Gabs!” Emma said.
Gabby’s heart raced as the shingles on the roof started to flake off with a flit, flit, flit. The wooden frame holding the roof to the walls creaked in protest, straining to remain attached.
The wind was so loud Gabby could barely think. Then again, there wasn’t a lot to think about in her current state of terror. Thoughts came in flashes. Family. Friends. Wondering if this was it. The last hurrah. Dreams held, but never achieved. Hamilton’s smile. Would her father have to identify her shattered body? What came next? Would God embrace her? Had she failed him by being reckless? Had she lived the life he intended?
The stall separating Gabby and Emma collapsed onto the floor, and the brick wall keeping the tornado’s rage at bay started to sway.
Gabby reached out to Emma, desperately grasping her sweaty hand. They looked at each other, the wind spraying their faces with wet dirt, and smiled. Gabby couldn’t remember a day without her. They were sisters in all but blood. Emma was always present, either in thought or in person. She was her spontaneous alter ego. Emma made life fun. She was easy. And no other relationship in Gabby’s life was easy.
If this was her last moment on Earth, there was no other person in the world she’d rather spend it with than Emma.
The roof started to slap up and down, sprinkling them with splinters of wood, and bricks snapped as the wall began to crack.
“I love you, Em,” Gabby said.
“I love you too,” Emma replied.
They squeezed their hands one last time and closed their eyes.
Gabby held her breath, trying not to imagine how horrific a death by a tornado must feel. The wind continued to howl, and the walls grew fluid.
She let out a long and constant exhale, awaiting the inevitable. Yet, as her breath slowly escaped her lungs, the wind around them diminished. A few seconds later, the maelstrom ceased and the sky grew quiet. There was nothing left to hear but the rain pattering on the disfigured roof.
“Is it gone?” Emma asked, her hand still clutching Gabby’s.
“I think so…”
They stepped onto the wet and muddy floor, peering outside. A corridor of light peeked through the clouds, illuminating their favorite spot on the seawall. The ground, now scarred, left a three-foot-wide barren swath leading directly to the reshaped trees that once shaded them. Garbage was strewn about, tables reshuffled, and the random gusts left a lawn chair from God knows where on the center of the shelter roof. It almost looked as if it were placed there on purpose.
Gabby dared to look up to see the gray finger retract back into the clouds and spin into vapor.
Emma started to giggle.
“What’s so funny?” Gabby asked.
“Are you kidding me? That was so cool!”
“You’re insane!” she said, releasing Emma’s hand. “We could have died.”
“Yeah, but we didn’t!”
“Good, cause I’m kinda over the whole near-death thing.”
“Gabs, this is different. This was a tornado! How many kids can say that they survived a brush with a tornado? We’ll be the most popular people at school. Famous! No, infamous!”
“There’s something wrong with you,” Gabby said with a chuckle.
“I’m an opportunist.”
“With a really muddy face.”
They stepped around the broken partition and splashed their faces clean in the damaged bathroom sinks.
“We should name it,” Emma said.
“Our adventure. You know, for posterity.”
“How about The Day Emma Lost Her Mind?”
Emma scrunched her nose in displeasure. “How about The Day Gabby Lost Her Sense of Humor?”
“I like my version better.”
“C’mon, Gabs. It’s our chance to prove ourselves, to show everyone we’re more than just a couple of boring teens.”
“And giving our life a series of titles will do that?”
“It’s a start.”
“It’s weird,” Gabby said.
“Well, it’s important to me. No one takes me serious, Gabs. I’m short, I’m average looking, I’m barely middle class, and my dad is the guy who wants to put my friends in jail when they have too much fun.”
“You have nothing to prove, Em.”
“What do you know about it, Gabs? You’re the town hero.”
“Don’t call me that. Don’t ever call me that.”
“Well, that’s what they say. Do you know what they say about me? I’m the friend of Gabby, the hero. Gabby’s short buddy. Gabby’s sidekick. Kids at school don’t even know my name. They just know me because they know you.”
“Why haven’t you told me about this before?”
“I don’t know. I guess because I’ve never done anything memorable, not like you. That is, not until today. Not until the park. This is my chance to be the girl who survived a tornado. I’d like to be remembered too.”
“If it’s important to you, then I’m all in. Let’s title it.”
Emma’s face fell. “Oh, no…”
“Never mind. We don’t have to tell anyone.”
“Because… you were there too. I’ll just be the girl who was with Gabby when she survived a tornado.”
“Then don’t tell anyone I was there. I don’t want people to notice me, Em. I’d rather be invisible. I like it better when people ignore me.”
“Then stop being so amazing.”
“You’ve known me my entire life. I’ve never been amazing.”
“Not to me, but to everyone else.”
“What do you want me to do, Em? I feel like I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.”
“I don’t know…” Emma said as her cell phone rang. “It’s my dad.” She answered. “Hey, Dad, what’s up? Where am I? At the park with Gabby. Really? The weather radar said what? A tornado? No way! Here? Well, it did get a little windy. No, we’re fine. Just hanging out.”
Gabby shook her head, half listening to their conversation. Being the daughter of the sheriff wasn’t easy for Emma. Everyone expected her to be perfect, and her classmates wanted her to help them out of trouble. It was a no-win situation. So, Emma rebelled in little ways. She lied, but not too much. She’d layer in just enough truth so she could claim innocence when crap hit the fan. Knowing her dad wouldn’t want a public scandal, Emma liked to push the boundaries and see how much she could get away with. She never did anything really bad. She just got really good at doing things sort of bad, like denying she just had a life-altering experience with a tornado. Whatever web she was weaving, it didn’t sound like it was turning out in her favor.
“Dad! C’mon!” Emma said. “Gabby and I will be fine. But Dad… Dad… But— Fine.” She shoved her phone into her damp pocket and sighed. “This blows large, maggot covered chunks.”
“That’s a disgusting analogy, even for you,” Gabby said.
“Yes, but appropriate. My illustrious father wants me to go stay at the hurricane shelter at the high school.”
“He said Alexander has been bumped up to a Category Two and it may get worse. The sheriff’s department is in crisis, and he’ll be on duty until after the storm. They’re starting to evacuate low-lying areas and damaged neighborhoods. He said my mom will meet me at the school later, and he wants me to be safe.”
“That’s a good thing, Em.”
“Yeah, but boring. Massively, repugnantly boring. I grew up with safe. I hate safe. I like excitement. Like the time we did the thing with those people with the tattoos.”
“That was not safe,” Gabby said. “That was reckless.”
“And awesome. The Night Emma Pulled Gabby from a Biker Gang Fight.”
“Which you started.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t title that one.”
“That’s not the point. The point is that I’m built for excitement, Gabs. Not for sitting on bleachers all day while it rains outside. Almost as boring as waiting for you to get done being grounded. Epically and excruciatingly boring.”
“That’s a lot of adverbs.”
“After two hours at the school, I just may kill myself.”
“You are so over dramatic.”
“No, Gabs. I’m under dramatic.”
“That’s not really a phrase, Em. Besides, I’m sure you’ll have a fun time at the school hanging out with Karl. And your mom. And the old people who live in mobile homes who get evacuated every time Mother Nature sniffles.”
“Seriously, I’ll lose it. I’ll crack. Gun to the head and boom. Brain matter everywhere.”
Gabby shuddered, violently shaking her head. Her mind suddenly untethered from her surroundings. It raced back to another place. The bang of a pistol firing. The smell of gunpowder. The repulsive sight of brains and blood, flesh and hair spraying against a wall.
When Gabby opened her eyes, she was kneeling on the ground, covering her head, and rocking back and forth.
“Gabby!” Emma yelled. “Gabby! I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to say that. I’m sorry.”
She was there again, in the abandoned metal shop, unable to stop a psychopath from committing murder. Vulnerable. Powerless. She didn’t want to be reminded of that day, but her mind didn’t care. Her recall was random and set off by small things, like the sound of squeaky car shocks, or big things, like the sound of a gunshot on television. The doctors called it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. Gabby called it involuntary visits to hell.
Emma grabbed Gabby by the shoulders and helped her to her feet. “I’m sorry, Gabs! I’m so sorry. Please forgive me. I’m such an idiot! I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, Em. It’s not your fault.”
“I should stop complaining, after what you’ve been through.”
“You weren’t unharmed either,” Gabby said.
“But you saved me, Gabs. You saved my life.”
“I just did what I had to do.” Gabby pulled away and stared at the bay waters, fighting her mind, forcing it to stay there, in the present, at the park. It was a trick she had used in the past. Maybe it would work again.
Emma remained silent. As much as she and Gabby had done together in their lives, they rarely talked about what unfolded on the Fourth of July. Not the ugly details. It was one of the few things that didn’t get better the more they talked about it. Gabby wasn’t ready yet. Maybe she never would be.
“Are you okay?” Emma asked.
Gabby inhaled deeply and held the damp, salty air in her lungs. Her mind calmed. Her panic subsided. With a long exhale, the past pushed back where it belonged.
“Not so amazing, huh?” Gabby asked.
“I should have known better.”
“It’s okay, Em. It’s not your fault.”
“I thought you were getting better.”
“So did I,” Gabby said. “See? I’m not special, Em. I’m broken. Just like a lot of other people.”
“Do you want to go home?”
“No. I want to go with you. To the school. I’ll hang out with you.”
“It’ll be so boring,” Emma said.
“I could use boring right about now.”
“We’ll have fun. I promise. Boring fun.”
“Fun would be nice.”
“Ooo! I wonder if there will be any cute boys there?”
“What happened to Jake?”
“We’re in a holding pattern.”
“Why?” Gabby asked.
“You’ll just make fun of me.”
“I do that anyway.”
“Let’s just say he did something stupid.”
“How is that different?” Gabby asked.
“Trust me, it’s different. All I can say is it involved a bicycle tube, an oil can, and a tape measure.”
“I think you’ve said more than enough.”
“It was horrid,” Emma said. “I don’t want to think about it anymore.”
“If I’m going to spend the day with you, we’ll need a change of clothes.”
“I’ll have my mom bring us some,” Emma said.
“And some bandages.”
“They’ll have those at the school.”
“Right,” Gabby said. “Then let’s go.”
Emma clapped like a kid winning free ice cream. “We’re going to have so much fun! I promise!”
“This wasn’t your surprise, was it? Because I’d rather go shoe shopping.”
“No, but I’ll turn our day into a detour to awesomeness.”
Gabby smiled. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”
“You’re not the only one with skills, Gabs.” She continued to chat with unbridled excitement as they headed back to the tree where they had parked their bikes. Gabby listened, content to let Emma’s enthusiasm wash over her. It replenished her and fed a psyche starving for enjoyment and distraction. God knew Gabby was incapable of finding those two things on her own.
Gabby stopped at the base of a large oak. “I think we have a problem.”
“You’ve changed your mind? You’re going to ditch me like you did your dad?”
“You know what I like about you? You don’t jump to conclusions.”
“Then what’s the hub-bub?”
“Our bikes are gone.”
Emma stared at a heavy, wooden picnic table blown against the tree base.
“We didn’t ride this table here, did we?” Gabby asked.
“Obviously not,” Emma joked. “I’d never be seen riding something so pedestrian.”
“Where do you think our rides went?”
“They have to be around here somewhere.”
They scanned the park. Broken branches, garbage, and other debris scattered the ground. But no bicycles.
“Yup. We definitely have a problem,” Gabby said.
“Why?” Emma asked, finding her staring straight up. “What are you looking at?”
Fifteen feet above them, tangled within the large oak, were their bikes.
Tomorrow – Chapter Three
This novel follows up almost immediately after the events which unfolded in Kneel & Prey. If you haven’t read the first novel, download it for free. I hope you’ve enjoyed this free sample and let me know what you think in the comments.