The meteorologist on television is tired. She’s standing on the shore, too close to the Atlantic Ocean for my liking, her hair escaping from her Weather Central baseball cap and billowing in the 50 mile-per-hour winds.
“So, as you can see, Mike,” she yells to the camera, “This storm is gaining strength.”
The Weather Central anchorman, safe and warm behind his studio desk, responds with a laugh in his voice, as if storms aren’t scary and it’s totally normal for human beings to put on windbreakers and allow themselves to be pelted by heavy wind and rain in order to point out the obvious: Nature doesn’t mess around. “Stay safe out there, Melissa,” he calls to the anchor in the storm.
“What?” Melissa the Meteorologist calls back. Her hat blows off and she puts her hand on her head in what looks like an attempt to keep it from flying off of her neck. I feel creepy noticing that she’s beautiful. I’ve been noticing stuff like that a lot lately. I want to kiss her in front of the ocean and save her from the storm. It’s gross. My brain is all messed up these days, I guess.
“Stay safe,” the anchorman yells again.
“I’m having trouble hearing you,” Melissa yells. She presses her forefinger to her ear and makes a face. Behind her, the waves keep rising, keep wrecking themselves on the sand. “I’m not getting anything,” she says to someone off camera. “Are we—”
The feed dies, and the anchorman apologizes for the technical difficulties. “Whoops! Looks like we lost Melissa there. Let’s go to Regan for a look at the Doppler radar. Regan?”
My family sits around the basement—my parents on the couch, my 14-year-old sister, Luz, melting over my father’s perfectly broken-in armchair, and me on the carpet—and watches as a blonde in a perfectly pressed pantsuit waves her hands around a map of our state, discussing pressure systems and wind factors. My parents are riveted; they’ve been watching storm coverage for at least five hours now, because that’s what people do, I guess, when nature gets rough: They look to technology to somehow solve the problem.
“Can we watch something else?” I ask. I have a television in my room, but I don’t want to be alone, and anyway my mother insists that we stay in the basement until the storm passes.
“Shh,” my mother says, enraptured by the forecast. She sighs and shakes her head and starts thinking aloud: “I knew it. I should have bought more bread.” There are like eight loaves on the kitchen counter. My mother is the type of person who thrives on preparing for disaster. She is always ready, but—in her eyes, anyway—never ready enough. I’m pretty sure she still has a Y2K canned-goods stash in the garage, which is great news if the world ends and I get a craving for creamed corn that’s older than I am.
My father keeps sneaking toward the tiny basement window to check the color of the sky. “Looking a bit chartreuse,” he says. My dad is an architect and a stickler for detail.
“Get away from there,” my mother snaps. “It’s not safe.”
My father frowns. “Lydia,” he says. “I think I know a thing or two about windows. This one was built for storm purposes. It’s double-paned glass. It’s fine.”
I pull my knees to my chin and think about poor Melissa, and the four years she spent getting that meteorology degree, only to get pummeled by gale force winds on live television. I keep repeating the anchorman’s words to myself: Looks like we lost Melissa there. It was so casual, so relaxed. We lost Melissa there. Something about the phrasing made my stomach turn. I think I may love Melissa. I’m worried about her, and her hat, and the unpredictability of the ocean. But Melissa is gone. She is lost. We lost her there.
The only person not paying attention to the television is Luz, who is taking some sort of magazine quiz and listening to music on her headphones.
“Too loud,” my mother calls to her, tapping the side of her face and raising one eyebrow, the international language of Mothers Who Want You to Turn It Down.
My sister shoots her a death stare and sighs the kind of sigh that comes from so deep within that it’s something unleashed, rather than released. Almost immediately, the tiny basement window breaks.
“I don’t believe it,” my father says. He looks as impressed as he does embarrassed.
“I told you it wasn’t safe,” my mother cries. My father rushes to board up the window as my mother panics about bread and milk and “that damn tree in the backyard we should have cut down three years ago.”
Luz keeps her headphones on and flips a page of her magazine. I smile at her and she glares at me. The wind gets louder and the rain becomes a boxer on the roof, bang, bang, bang! TKO! I try to act brave, but my mother sees the fear in my eyes and hands me a blanket.
“It’s OK, baby,” she says unconvincingly.
My father swears at the sky as he boards up the window, shielding his eyes from the wind and rain.
Luz blows a bubble with her gum, and the second it pops, a blast of lightning hits that damn tree in the backyard, knocking it to the ground. My parents give all of their attention to the storm, and the yard, and property values, but I keep my eyes on Luz. She notices me watching her, pops another bubble, and winks as the wind bangs against the side of the house.
“Remember,” the anchorman warns us from his television studio hundreds of miles away. “The eye can be deceiving. The calmest part of the storm is often in the center. You may think it’s safe, but danger is right around the corner.”
Luz isn’t the same girl she was six months ago. My mother says she’s going through “changes,” which everyone knows is adult code speak for “sex-related stuff.” I know about periods—I mean, I know as much as most 12-year-olds, I think. It’s basic biology and it requires a lot of products from that one aisle in the supermarket that I hate walking through with my mother. It’s like supermarket chains got together and decided they needed a embarrassment/torture aisle. Tampons? Sure. Maxipads? Why not? Condoms? Go ahead, throw those in too! Every kid wants to walk by things that say “for her pleasure” and “maximum absorbency” while being dragged on errands by their mother, right?
There are things you aren’t supposed to notice about your own sister. Like, she’s bigger now, and not only height-wise but like, you know, boob-wise, and it’s weird. I feel like maybe I can’t touch her anymore, like I can’t tackle her when we play football in the yard or wrestle her for the remote or the last cookie or whatever it is we both want but only one of us can have. It’s like a force field is around her, like she’s crossed a line and inhabited a body that belongs to someone else, someone older, someone who doesn’t have time to deal with my dumb kid garbage anymore.
I mean, we used to be best friends. But she’s been pissy and private, and she doesn’t think my jokes are funny anymore. She thinks I’m “immature,” and a “little creep,” and, when she really wants to hurt me, points out how small I am for my age, how I’m “still a baby” and “don’t understand what it means to grow up.” My mother makes the situation worse by treating me like a child and pointing out that I, too, will have “changes” when “the time is right,” which is a frustrating thing to hear when it seems like everyone you know is suddenly hairier and taller and speaking in a newer, deeper voice and you’re still hairless and squeaky and 5’1”. I’m pretty convinced that everyone else has access to some secret growth potion and they’re all laughing at me behind my back for not getting any. Well, whatever. If this storm really is as apocalyptic as Weather Central makes it seem, they’ll all be sorry. They may have the hormones, but I have the crusty old cans of creamed corn. Score one for the late bloomer.
I can tell that my father is getting bored. He can’t check the sky anymore, due to the boarded-up window, and Weather Central has been repeating the same information—Hey! This storm is bad! Don’t go outside!—for the past few hours. There’s still no word on if Melissa is safely out of the storm or not. Oh, Melissa! I would have married you and bought you another hat. We could have gotten matching windbreakers and kissed in Category 1 winds. My father suggests that we play a game to pass the time.
“Luz,” my mother yells, trying to reach my sister through her headphones. “We’re playing a game.”
“So?” my sister says. She picks at a zit on her chin as Weather Central shows a commercial for a special on volcanoes.
“So you’re playing too,” my mother says firmly.
“Games are boring,” my sister says. Everything is boring to Luz these days, unless it has to do with her friends, or her music, or anything else that belongs to her and only her. There are two worlds in this house these days, and only Luz has a passport to hers, which I like to call Planet Pissy. The rest of us are still on Planet Family: my two parents and me, their baby.
“You’re playing,” my father says sternly, and I wonder if I’ll ever be able to end an argument just by adjusting the tone of my voice.
Luz throws her magazine on the ground and a clap of thunder shakes the house. My mother looks at my father with worried eyes, and I think maybe they are noticing what I’ve been noticing, but all she says is “I should have bought more milk.”
Luz sits next to me on the carpet and stares into space as my dad sets up the Risk board in the center of the room. She keeps one arm across her stomach, as if she’s holding her organs in.
“You have cramps, honey?” my mother asks.
“Mom,” she hisses. “Oh my god. Can you not?”
“I’m just trying to help,” my mother says.
“Did you eat something bad?” my clueless father asks. “Is it diarrhea? That’s going to be rough if the water gets shut off.” Sometimes he thinks like an architect: all structure and function. It’s weird that his brain simultaneously allows him to pay attention to detail and somehow miss the point.
“Oh my god,” Luz says again. She hides her face inside of her shirt. “This is the worst day of my life.”
“That’s enough,” my mother says. I can’t tell if she’s admonishing my father or my sister.
“I hate this family,” my sister says.
“Watch your mouth,” my mother snaps. “Don’t you ever say such a thing.”
My sister seethes and the wind outside picks up, faster and faster, relentless in its need to go forward, to take the landscape and mess it up, to make things unrecognizable.
“She doesn’t mean it,” my mother says softly to my father. “She’s just having a hard time.”
My father, embarrassed, blushes and pretends to be interested in the Risk directions, even though we’ve played the game—the game of world domination—hundreds of times before and know the rules inside out. The air is heavy with anger and fear and the words “is it diarrhea?” and it is awkward and horrible and something in me can’t take it. I think of Melissa, swept out to sea, and how my mother can’t stop calling me baby, and I feel mean enough to blurt out: “Yeah. She’s just being a bitch because she’s got her period.”
“Alex,” my father says. “Language.”
“Well, it’s true!”
“What do you know about anything,” my sister spits. “You’re just a baby.” The wind moves faster and faster and I can’t stand being in the room, can’t stand pretending to dominate the world, can’t stand the sound of the storm beating up our house and shaking up our family. I hear my voice escaping my mouth, a voice both familiar and strange, like my voice remixed.
“I AM NOT A BABY!”
I’m shaking and angry and feeling all kinds of feelings and I barely notice that the power has gone out. It’s only when Luz turns on her flashlight and shines it in my direction that I notice my entire family is staring at me in silence. Luz smiles at me, and it is a real smile, a Luz smile, the kind of smile she used to give before “changes” made her impossible to be around. For a second, we are all on Planet Family.
My mother starts to say something, but the power goes back on and there’s Melissa, standing by a much calmer sea, a new hat affixed to her head.
“It looks like the worst of it is over,” she says confidently to camera. She looks even more beautiful in the post-storm calm. I am glad she’s not lost, that she was there the whole time, just off-screen, weathering the things we all have to weather, living through the disaster in order to get to the sun on the other side. ♦