MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
I was eight years old when I learned there were consequences for associating with the English. Consequences that were invariably negative and imposed by well-meaning Amish parents bent on upholding the rules set forth by our Anabaptist forefathers nearly three hundred years ago. In my case, this particular life lesson transpired at the horse auction near Millersburg and involved a twelve-year-old English boy and the Appaloosa gelding he was trying to sell. Add me to the mix, and it was a dangerous concoction that ended with me taking a fall and my father's realization that I saw the concept of rules in a completely different light-and I possessed an inherent inability to follow them.
I never forgot the lesson I learned that day or how much it hurt my eight-year-old heart, which, even at that tender age, was already raging against the unfairness of the Ordnung and all of those who would judge me for my transgressions. But the lessons of my formative years didn't keep me from breaking the same rules time and time again, defying even the most fundamental of Amish tenets. By the time I entered my teens, just about everyone had realized I couldn't conform and, worse, that I didn't fit in, both of which are required of a member of the Amish community.
Now, at the age of thirty-three, I can't quite reconcile myself to the fact that I'm still trying to please those who will never approve and failing as miserably as I did when I was an inept and insecure fifteen-year-old girl.
I'm sitting in the passenger seat of John Tomasetti's Tahoe, not sure if I'm impressed by his perceptivity or annoyed because my state of mind is so apparent. We've been living together at his farm for seven months now, and while we've had some tumultuous moments, I have to admit it's been the happiest and most satisfying time of my life.
Tomasetti, a former detective with the Cleveland Division of Police, is an agent with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation. Like me, he has a troubled past and more than his share of secrets, some I suspect I'm not yet privy to. But we have an unspoken agreement that we won't let our pasts dictate our happiness or how we live our lives. Honestly, he's the best thing that's ever happened to me, and I like to think the sentiment runs both ways.
"What makes you think I'm worried?" I tell him, putting forth a little attitude.
"I'm fidgeting because I'm nervous," I say. "There's a difference."
He glances at me, scowling, but his eyes are appreciative as he runs them over me. "You look nice."
I hide my smile by looking out the window. "If you're trying to make me feel better, it's working."
Good humor plays at the corner of his mouth. "It's not like you to change clothes four times."
"Hard to dress for an Amish dinner."
"Especially when you used to be Amish, apparently."
"Maybe I should have made an excuse." I glance out the window at the horizon. "Weatherman said it's going to rain."
"It's not like you to chicken out."
"Unless it's my brother."
"Kate, he invited you. He wants you there." He reaches over, sets his hand on my thigh just above my knee, and squeezes. I wonder if he has any idea how reassuring the gesture is. "Be yourself and let the chips fall."
I don't point out that being myself is exactly the thing that got me excommunicated from my Amish brethren in the first place.
He makes the turn into the long gravel lane of my brother Jacob's farm. The place originally belonged to my parents but was handed down to him, the eldest male child, when they passed away. I mentally brace as the small apple orchard on my right comes into view. The memories aren't far behind, and I find myself looking down the rows of trees, almost expecting to see the three Amish kids sent to pick apples for pies. Jacob, Sarah, and I had been inseparable back then, and instead of picking apples, we ended up playing hide-and-seek until it was too dark to see. As was usually the case, I was the instigator. Kate, the druvvel-machah. The "troublemaker." Or so my datt said. The one and only time I confessed to influencing my siblings, he punished me by taking away my favorite chore: bottle-feeding the three-week-old orphan goat I'd named Sammy. I'd cajoled and argued and begged. I was rewarded by being sent to bed with no supper and a stomachache from eating too many green apples.
The house is plain and white with a big front porch and tall windows that seem to glare at me as we veer right. The maple tree I helped my datt plant when I was twelve is mature and shades the hostas that grow alongside the house. In the side yard, I catch sight of two picnic tables with mismatched tablecloths flapping in the breeze.
I take in the old chicken house ahead and the big barn to my left, and it strikes me how much of my past is rooted in this place. And how much of it is gone forever. When you're Amish, there are no photos. There are no corny albums or school pictures or embarrassing videos. My parents have long since passed, which means everything that happened here, both good and bad, exists only in my memory and the memories of my siblings. Maybe that's why I can't stay away. No matter how many times my brother hurts me, I always come back, like a puppy that's been kicked but knows no other place to be, no other comfort.
I want to share this part of my past with Tomasetti. I want him to stand in the shade of the maple tree while I tell him about the day Datt and I planted it. How proud I'd been when the buds came that first spring. I want to walk the fields with him and show him where the fallen log was that I took our old plow horse over when I was thirteen years old. I want to show him the pond where I caught my first bass. The same pond that saw Jacob and I duke it out over a hockey game. He might have been older and bigger, but he didn't fight dirty; not when it came to me, anyway. I, on the other hand, was born with the killer instinct he lacked, and he was usually the one who walked away with a black eye or busted lip. He never ratted on me, but I'll never forget the way he looked at me all those times when he lied to our parents to protect me and was then punished for it. And I never said a word.
Tomasetti parks in the gravel area behind the house and shuts down the engine. The buggy that belongs to my sister, Sarah, and my brother-in-law, William, is parked outside the barn. As I get out of the Tahoe, I see my sister-in-law, Irene, come through the back door with a bread basket in one hand, a plastic pitcher in the other.
She spots me and smiles. "Nau is awwer bsil zert, Katie Burkholder!" Now it's about time!
I greet her in Pennsylvania Dutch. "Guder nammidaag." Good afternoon.
"Mir hen Englischer bsuch ghadde!" she calls out. We have non-Amish visitors!
The screen door slams. I glance toward the house to see my sister, Sarah, coming down the porch steps juggling a platter of fried chicken and a heaping bowl of green beans. She wears a blue dress with an apron, a kapp with the ties hanging down her back, and nondescript black sneakers. "Hi, Katie!" she says with a little too much enthusiasm. "The men are inside. Sie scheie sich vun haddi arewat." They shrink from hard work.
Irene sets the pitcher and basket on the picnic table, then spreads her hands at the small of her back and stretches. She's wearing clothes much like my sister's. A blue dress that's slightly darker. Apron and kapp. A pair of battered sneakers. "Alle daag rumhersitze mach tem faul," she says, referring to the men. Sitting all day makes one lazy.
"Sell is nix as baeffzes." That's nothing but trifling talk.
At the sound of my brother's voice, I glance toward the house to see him and my brother-in-law, William, standing on the porch. Both men are wearing dark trousers with white shirts, suspenders and straw summer hats. Jacob's beard reaches midway to his waist and is shot with more gray than brown. William's beard is red and sparse. Both men's eyes flick from me to Tomasetti and then back to me, as if waiting for some explanation for his presence. It doesn't elude me that neither man offers to help with the food.
"Katie." Jacob nods at me as he takes the steps from the porch. "Wie geth's alleweil?" How goes it now?
"This is John Tomasetti," I blurt to no one in particular.
Next to me, Tomasetti strides forward and extends his hand to my brother. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Jacob," he says easily.
While the Amish excel at letting you know you are an outsider-which is usually done for some redemptive purpose, not cruelty-they can also be kind and welcoming and warm. I'm pleased to see all of those things in my brother's eyes when he takes Tomasetti's hand. "It's good to meet you, too, John Tomasetti."
"Kate's told me a lot about you," Tomasetti says.
William chuckles as he extends his hand. "Es waarken maulvoll gat." There's nothing good about that.
A giggle escapes Sarah. "Welcome, John. I hope you're hungry."
I make eye contact with Tomasetti. He winks, and some of the tension between my shoulder blades unravels.
Neither woman offers her hand for a shake. Instead they exchange nods when I make the introductions.
When the silence goes on for a beat too long, I turn my attention to my sister. "Can I help with something?"
"Setz der disch." Set the table. Sarah glances at Tomasetti and motions toward the picnic table. "Sitz dich anna un bleib e weil." Sit yourself there and stay awhile. "There's lemonade, and I'm about to bring out some iced tea."
Tomasetti strolls to the table and looks appreciatively at the banquet spread out before him. "You sure you trust me with all this food?"
"There's more than enough for everyone," Irene says.
William pats his belly. "Even me?"
A gust of wind snaps the tablecloths, and Jacob glances toward the western horizon. "If we're going to beat the storm, we'd best eat soon."
Irene shivers at the sight of the lightning and dark clouds. "Wann der Hund dich off der buckle legt, gebt's rene." When the dog lies on his back, there will be rain.
While Tomasetti and the Amish men pour lemonade and talk about the storms forecast for later, I follow the women into the kitchen. I'd been nervous about accepting today's invitation from my brother because I didn't know what to expect. I had no idea how they would respond to me and Tomasetti or the fact that we're living together with no plans to get married. To my relief, no one has mentioned any of those things, and another knot of tension loosens.
The kitchen is hot despite the breeze whipping in through the window above the sink. Sarah and I spend a few minutes gathering paper plates, plastic utensils, and sampling the potato salad, while Irene pulls a dozen or so steaming ears of corn from the Dutch oven atop the stove and stacks them on a platter. We make small talk, and I'm taken aback at how quickly the rhythm of Amish life returns to me. I ask about my niece and nephews, and I learn the kids walked to the pasture to show my little niece, who's just over a year old now, the pond, and I can't help but remember when that same pond was a fixture in my own life. I'd learned to swim in that pond, never minding the mud or the moss or the smell of fish that always seemed to permeate the water. Back then, I was an Olympian swimmer; I had no concept of swimming pools or chlorine or diving boards. I'd been content to swim in water the color of tea, sun myself on the dilapidated dock, treat myself to mud baths, and dream about all the things I was going to do with my life.
Brandishing a pitcher of iced tea and a basket of hot rolls, I follow the two women outside to the picnic tables. Out of the corner of my eye, I see that Jacob has pulled out his pipe to smoke, a habit that's frowned upon by some of the more conservative Amish. But then that's Jacob for you. He's also one of the few to use a motorized tractor instead of draft horses. In keeping with the Ordnung, he only uses steel wheels sans rubber tires. A few of the elders complain, but so far no one has done anything about it.
Within minutes we're sitting at a picnic table, a feast of fried chicken and vegetables from the garden spread out on the blue-and-white-checked tablecloth. At the table next to us, my niece and nephews load fried chicken and green beans onto their plates. I glance over at Tomasetti and he grins at me, giving me an I-told-you-everything-would-be-fine look, and in that moment I'm content.
"Wann der Disch voll is, well mir bede." If the tables are full, let us pray. Jacob gives the signal for the before-meal prayer. Heads are bowed. Next to us, the children's table goes silent. And Jacob's voice rings out. "O Herr Gott, himmlischer Vater, Segne uns und Diese Diene Gaben, die wir von Deiner milden Gute Zu uns nehmen warden, Speise und tranke auch unsere Seelen zum ewigen Leben, und mach uns theilhaftig Deines himmllischen Tisches durch Jesus Christum. Amen."
O Lord God, heavenly Father, bless us and these thy gifts, which we shall accept from thy tender goodness. Give us food and drink also for our souls unto life eternal, and make us partakers of thy heavenly table through Jesus Christ. Amen.
Upon finishing, he looks around, and as if by unspoken agreement, everyone begins reaching for platters and filling their plates.
"The kids have grown so much since I saw them last," I say as I spoon green beans onto my plate.
"It seems like yesterday that Little Hannah was a newborn," my sister says with a sigh. "They grow up so fast."
Jacob slathers homemade butter onto an ear of corn. "Elam drove the tractor last week."
Sarah rolls her eyes. "And almost drove it into the creek!"
"Like father like son," William mutters.
Irene pours a second glass of tea. "Katie, do you and John have any plans for children?"
I can tell by the way the pitcher pauses mid-pour that she realizes instantly her faux pas. Her eyes flick to mine. I see a silent apology, then she quickly looks away and sets the pitcher on the table. "There's tea if anyone's thirsty."
"Maybe they should get married first," Jacob says.
"I love weddings." Sarah shakes pepper onto an ear of corn.
"Any plans for one, Katie?" Jacob asks.
In the interminable silence that follows, the tension builds, as if it were a living thing, growing and filling up space. I'm not sure how to respond. The one thing I do know is that no matter what I say, I'll be judged harshly for it.
"Let's just say we're a work in progress." I smile, but it feels dishonest on my lips because I know now that this Pandora's box has been opened, it's fair game.
"Work?" Jacob slathers apple butter onto a roll. "I don't think getting married is too much work."
"For a man, anyway," Irene says.
"A man'll work harder to stay out of the house." William doesn't look up from his plate. "If he's smart."
"I think Kate's placing the emphasis on the 'in progress' part." Tomasetti grins at Irene. "Pass the corn, please."
"In the eyes of the Lord, the two of you are living in sin," Jacob says.
I turn my attention to my brother. "In the eyes of some of the Amisch, too, evidently."
He nods, but his expression is earnest. "I don't understand why two people would want to live like that."
Embarrassment and, for an instant, the familiar old shame creeps up on me, but I don't let it take hold. "Jacob, this isn't the time or place to discuss this."
"Are you afraid God will hear?" he asks. "Are you afraid He will disapprove?"
Tomasetti helps himself to an ear of corn, sets down his fork, and turns his attention to my brother. "If you have something on your mind, Jacob, I think you should just put it out there."
"Marriage is a sacred thing." He holds Tomasetti's gaze, thoughtful. "I don't understand why you choose to live the way you do. If a man and woman choose to live together, they should be married."
All eyes fall on Tomasetti. He meets their stares head-on and holds them, unflinching and unapologetic. "With all due respect, that's between Kate and me. That's the best answer I can give you, and I hope you and the rest of the family will respect it."
My brother looks away in deference. But I know that while he'll tolerate our point of view for now, he'll never agree with it-or give his blessing. "All right then."
I look around the table. Everyone is staring down at their plates, concentrating a little too intently on their food. Across from me, Irene scoots her husband's plate closer to him. "Maybe you should eat your food instead of partaking in idle talk like an old woman."
Sarah coughs into her hand but doesn't quite cover her laugh. "There's date pudding for dessert."
"That's my favorite." Irene smiles at her sister-in-law. "Right after snitz pie."
"I haven't had snitz pie since Big Joe Beiler married Edna Miller," William says through a mouthful of chicken.
I barely hear the exchange over the low thrum of my temper. Don't get me wrong; I love my brother and sister. Growing up, they were my best friends and, sometimes, my partners in crime. There were many things I loved about being Amish: being part of a tight-knit community. Growing up with the knowledge that I was loved not only by my family, but by my brethren. But this afternoon I'm reminded of two things I detested: narrow-mindedness and intolerance.
As if reading my mind, Tomasetti sets his hand on my arm and squeezes. "Let it go," he says quietly.
I'm relieved when my cell phone vibrates against my hip. "I've got to take this," I say, pulling out my phone and getting to my feet.
I walk a few yards away from the picnic tables and answer with my usual: "Burkholder."
"Sorry to bother you on your afternoon off, Chief. Just wondering if you've been following the weather."
It's Rupert Maddox, but everyone calls him "Glock" because he has a peculiar fondness for his sidearm. A war vet with two tours in Afghanistan under his belt, he's my most solid officer and the first African American to grace the Painters Mill PD.
"Actually, I'm not," I say. "What's up?"
"Weather service just issued a tornado warning for Knox and Richland Counties," he tells me. "We got some serious shit on the way. It just touched down north of Fredericktown."
Thoughts of my family evaporate, and I press the phone more tightly against my ear. "Casualties?" I ask. "Damage?"
"SHP says it's a war zone," he says, referring to the state highway patrol. "There's a tornado on the ground and headed this way, moving fast. Fifteen minutes and we're going to be under the gun."
"Call the mayor. Tell him to get the sirens going."
But I know that while the tornado sirens are an effective warning for people living in town and will give them time to get into their basements or storm shelters, Holmes County is mostly rural. The majority of people live too far away to hear the sirens. To make matters worse, the Amish don't have TVs or radios and have no way of knowing there's a dangerous storm on the way.
"Call dispatch and tell Lois I want everyone on standby. If things look dicey at the station, she needs to take cover down in the jail."
"Glock, do you and LaShonda have a basement?"
"Got it covered, Chief. I've got a weather radio down there. And a Wii for the kids."
"Good." I look over at the picnic table to see Tomasetti standing, his head cocked, looking at me intently. "Look, I'm at my brother's farm, and we're about nine miles east of town. Can you give me a hand and help me get the word out?"
"I'll take the west side and go door to door. Sheriff's got some deputies out, too."
"Thanks. Do me a favor and stay safe, will you?"
I hit END and stride back to the table. "There's a tornado on the ground west of here and heading this way."
"I thought it looked bad," Irene says, getting to her feet.
Jacob rises. "How close?"
"You've got fifteen minutes to get the animals turned out and everyone in the basement."
William leaves the table and starts toward the buggy where his horse is hitched. "I'm going to turn my gelding out, too."
"I'll help." Jacob starts after him. "Probably ought to put the buggy in the barn."
Tomasetti leans close. "Saved by the tornado," he mutters, but he's already reaching for his smartphone to check radar.
Sarah has snatched up several serving dishes, still mounded with food, and stacked them haphazardly in her arms. Looking harried, Irene herds my niece and nephews toward the back porch. I know there's a door off the kitchen that will take them to the stairs. The basement is a damp, dark room, but it's their best protection against debris if the storm passes over or near the house.
I address Sarah: "Leave the food. You've only got a few minutes. Gather up the kids and get everyone in the basement."
I turn my attention to William and Jacob twenty yards away, already working in tandem to unhitch the horse. "Ten minutes!" I call out to them.
Jacob waves to let me know they're cognizant of the urgency of the situation.
In the few minutes since I received the call, the wind has kicked up. The sky to the west roils with black clouds tinged with an odd shade of green. The tablecloth whips up. A bag of chips flies off. Holding my niece, my sister goes after it, but I call out and stop her.
"Leave it! Take Hannah inside and get into the basement. Now." I glance toward the barn to see Jacob and William leading the horse toward the gate. "I've got to go."
Surprising me, Sarah trots over, steps close, and presses her cheek against mine. "Be careful, sister."
I give her my best smile. "You, too."
I glance to my right to see that Tomasetti is already in the Tahoe. Window down, he's turned the vehicle around and is waiting for me. "We've got to go!"
I dash to the SUV, yank open the door, and climb inside. "Where is it?" I ask without preamble.
The tires spew gravel as he starts down the lane. "It just leveled Spring Mountain."
"Shit. Shit. That means it's heading northeast."
"Toward Layland. Then Clark."
"And then Painters Mill." I snatch up my phone and speed-dial Glock. "Where are you?"
"I just hit the Stutz place."
"It's headed this way."
"Screaming like banshees."
I think for a moment, aware that the engine is groaning, Tomasetti pushing the speedometer to seventy. The wind buffets the vehicle and yanks at the power lines overhead. "I wanted to get down to the mobile home park on the southeast side of town."
"Too far away, Chief. Gotta let it go."
"Shit." Frustrated, I look out the window to see that the trees alongside the road are getting pounded by wind, leaves being torn from branches. It's not raining, but visibility is down due to dust. "I'm going to hit a couple of farms out this way then head to the station."
"See you there."
Outside the vehicle, the wind goes suddenly calm. The leaves of the maple trees shimmer silver against the black sky. Small debris litters the road. Gravel and leaves and small branches with the leaves still attached. Humidity hangs in the air like a wet blanket. I don't have my police radio with me, but Tomasetti has his tuned to the channel used by the Holmes County Sheriff's Department.
"I don't like the looks of this," he says.
I point to a narrow gravel lane shrouded by trees. "Turn here."
He hits the brakes and makes the turn-too fast-down the gravel lane and around the curve to the rear. I'm out of the vehicle before it comes to a complete stop. The first thing I notice are three Amish children playing with a big lumbering puppy in the side yard. The barn door is open, and I see the silhouette of Jonas Miller inside. I run toward the barn while Tomasetti turns the Tahoe around.
"Mr. Miller!" I'm breathless when I step into the doorway of the barn.
The Amish man drops the pitchfork he'd been using and runs out to meet me. "Was der schinner is letz?" What in the world is wrong?
"There's a tornado on the way," I tell him in Pennsylvania Dutch. "Get your family into the basement. Nau." Now.
Lightning flashes overhead, so close both of us duck. The wind has picked up again, groaning as it whips around the eaves. Fat drops of rain splat against the gravel and the side of the barn.
"Danki." He brings his hands together and calls out to the playing children. "Shtoahm! Die Zeit fer in haus is nau!" Storm! Time to go to the house now!
I run to the Tahoe, wrench open the door. "There's another farm next door."
"No time," he says. "We have to get to the station."
"Tomasetti, half the people in this town don't know there's a tornado on the way."
"We're not going to be any help to them if we're dead."
The tires spin and grab, and then we're barreling down the lane. Too fast. Tires scrambling for traction in loose gravel. The trees on either side of us undulate like underwater plants caught in a white-water rapid. I glance to the west. A swirling black wall cloud lowers from the sky like a giant anvil about to crush everything in its path.
By the time we reach the end of the lane, the first hailstones smack hard against the windshield and bounce off the hood. Tomasetti hauls the wheel left. The Tahoe fishtails when he hits the accelerator, and then we're flying down the road at double the speed limit.
I see his phone lying in the console and snatch it up. The tiny screen blinks on. He's pulled up the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration Web site with a live radar image of Painters Mill and vicinity. I see the flashing red of TORNADO WARNING at the bottom of the page and the magenta-colored mass of the storm moving across the map.
I set down the phone and look around. "It's right on top of us."
"Behind us. Close, though."
I swivel, look through the back window, and I almost can't believe my eyes. Rain slams down from a black sky, close but not yet upon us. It's chasing us, I think. Beyond, I can just make out the outline of a darker cloud on the ground, impossibly wide, and a quiver of fear moves through me. I look at Tomasetti. "Our place okay?" I ask.
"I think so."
"Tomasetti, this thing's going to get that mobile home park."
"Probably." Looking tense, he frowns at me. "No time, Kate."
I want to argue. Tell him that if we hurry, we can make it. I can use the bullhorn. It'll only take a few minutes. But I know he's right. We're out of time.
Instead, I rap my fist against the dash. "Damn it!"
We enter the corporation limits of Painters Mill doing sixty. Outside the vehicle, the emergency sirens blare, a sound that invariably raises the hairs on the back of my neck. The town has a hushed feel, as if it's holding its breath in anticipation of violence. Paper, trash, and leaves skitter along the sidewalk and street, like small animals running for cover. Some of the shopkeepers along Main Street took the time to close the awnings to protect their windows. Judging from the size of the wall cloud, I don't think it will help.
The sky opens as we fly past the city building. Through the curtain of rain, I spot Councilman Stubblefield dashing up the steps two at a time, wrenching open the door. Then the deluge of rain blinds us. The wipers are already cranked on high, but they're useless. It's as if we've driven into a bottomless body of water and we're on our way to the murky depths.
"There's Lois's Caddy."
I can barely make out the silhouette of her Cadillac parked in its usual spot. "Police radio is probably going nuts."
The SUV skids to a stop beside the Caddy. "Hopefully she's in the basement by now." Tomasetti jams the vehicle into Park, yanks out the key, and throws open the door.
Through the rain streaming down the windshield, I see a large plastic trash can tumble down the sidewalk. I shove open my door. The wind jerks it from my grip. Wind and rain slash my face with a ferocity that takes my breath. Grabbing the door, I slam it shut and sprint toward the station. The wind howls, harmonizing weirdly with the scream of the sirens. Hailstones hammer down hard enough to bruise skin. Tomasetti reaches the door first and ushers me inside.
I'm soaked to the skin, but I don't feel the cold or wet. Lois stands at the dispatch station, headset askew, her expression frazzled. "Chief! All hell's breaking loose!"
"You okay?" I ask.
"Scared shitless. Never seen it like this."
On the desktop in front of her, the radio hisses and barks with activity. The switchboard rings incessantly. On the shelf behind her, a weather radio broadcasts the latest warning from the National Weather Service.
"You got radar up anywhere?" Tomasetti asks as he strides to the dispatch station.
Lois motions to the computer monitor on her desk. "Been watching it for fifteen minutes now, and I swear it's the scariest damn storm I've ever seen."
"There." She indicates two Maglites on her desktop. "Batteries, too."
I come up behind Tomasetti to look at the screen, and I almost can't believe my eyes. A wide swath of magenta with the telltale "hook echo," indicating rotation, hovers west of Painters Mill, moving ever closer with every blip of the heading flash.
"It's almost on top of us," I say.
"Worst of it's to the south," he counters.
"Lots of 911 calls coming in from that trailer park down there." Lois thumbs a button on the switchboard, takes another call. "Yes, ma'am. We know. There's a tornado on the ground. You need to take cover immediately in a storm shelter or your basement." She pauses. "Then get into your bathtub and cover yourself with sofa cushions, a mattress, or blankets." Pause. "Take your son with you. I know it's scary. Get in the tub. Right now." More incoming calls beep, but she shows no impatience.
I can't stop thinking about that mobile home park. A lot of young families live out there. A lot of children. There are no basements. No storm shelters. No place to go.
A few years ago, I volunteered to help with the cleanup of Perrysburg, Ohio, which is about two hours northwest of Painters Mill, after an F2 tornado ripped through the township. There were no fatalities, but many serious injuries occurred, mostly to individuals who tried riding out the storm inside their mobile homes.
"Stay away from the windows," Lois instructs the caller. "Put the older kids in the closet. Cover them with the mattress. Take the baby and get in the tub. Take care."
Tomasetti looks away from the computer monitor. "Any way to forward 911 calls to the basement?"
"I can forward the switchboard to the extension down there." Lois's fingers fly over the buttons. "Done."
"We need to take cover." Tomasetti snaps his fingers at Lois. "Headset off. Now." When she doesn't comply fast enough, he eases it from her head and motions toward the hallway. "Let's-"
The front window implodes. Glass flies inward. Lois yelps. Something large gets tangled in the blinds. The wind roars like a jet engine. Water soaks the floor instantly.
"Let's go!" Tomasetti shouts, grabbing the weather radio.
Lois scrambles from her chair and dashes to the hall. I'm a few feet behind her with Tomasetti to my right. Around us the building shudders and creaks. Behind me I hear more glass breaking. The blinds flap wildly. We're almost to the basement door, when we're plunged into darkness. For an instant I'm blind, the meager light from outside unable to penetrate the shadows of the hall. Tomasetti flicks on a flashlight, shoves the other one into my hand. I turn it on, yank open the door. We descend the stairs, our feet muffled against the carpet.
The basement is a dank, dark room equipped with a single jail cell, a duty desk, and a couple of antiquated file cabinets. I shine my light on the desk, and Lois goes directly to the phone and snatches it up. "Dead," she tells us.
I grapple for my cell and call Sheriff Mike Rasmussen on his personal number. He answers on the first ring.
"You guys okay up there?" I begin.
"Went to the south of us," he says. "You?"
"Not sure yet. We're in the basement. I think we're going to take a direct hit."
"You have access to radar?"
"There's going to be damage, Kate. That damn thing's half a mile wide and chewing up everything in its path."
I tell him about the mobile home park. "I couldn't get to them, Mike. If that park takes a direct hit, there are going to be casualties."
"Pomerene and Wooster are on standby," he tells me, referring to the two nearest hospitals. "Electric and gas companies are gearing up for power outages and gas leaks." He sighs. "Soon as we're in the clear, I'll have my guys head down to that trailer park."
"Thanks, Mike. We should be in the clear here in a few minutes."
"Call if you need anything."
I end the call and look at Tomasetti. He's standing a few feet away, dividing his attention between me and his smartphone, watching the radar.
Above us, the ceiling rattles and groans. My ears pop, and I hear the ungodly roar of a train careening down rickety tracks. In the beam of my flashlight, dust motes fly, shaken loose by the vibration from above, and in the back of my mind I find myself hoping the building holds.
Tomasetti looks away from his phone and makes eye contact with me. I can tell by his expression the news isn't good. "National Weather Service thinks it may have been an F3 that touched down to the west earlier."
I recall the level of damage I'd seen in Perrysburg after that F2, and the knot of worry in my chest draws tight.
He crosses to me, his expression grim. "Do you have an emergency preparedness plan?" he asks.
"Of course we do." Realizing I'm snapping at him when he's just trying to help, I take a deep breath. "I should have thought of that." I step away from him, work my phone from my pocket. "I'll call the mayor."
Auggie answers on the first ring. "Kate. Thank God. Where are you?"
"At the station."
"Except for the damn maple tree in my kitchen, we're just peachy."
Auggie and his wife live in a nice neighborhood of historic homes and mature trees on the north side of town. "Auggie, is there much damage? Did the tornado get your neighborhood?"
"Aside from that tree, I don't think so. But the wind was ... unbelievable."
"Look, I think we need to activate the emergency contingency plan."
The mayor goes silent for a moment, as if trying to remember what it is. The truth of the matter is, since its inception two years ago, we've never had to use it.
"You've got a copy of the plan, right?" I ask.
"Uh, yes. Here in my file, I think." But he doesn't sound too sure of that, and I don't think he knows what to do.
I have a copy of it here at the station, but Mayor Auggie is the official coordinator. "You probably need to notify the Red Cross first," I tell him. "I suspect we're going to have casualties. Gas leaks. Power outages. We're going to have citizens in need of food and water and shelter."
"Our designated shelter is the VFW hall," I tell him. "You might give Rusty a call and have him get things ready. I think they've got some cots and blankets and bottled water over at the Lutheran Church."
"Sure. Sure. I'll call him."
"Look, I've got to get out there. I'll call my officers and get everyone out helping. Phones are down at the station. If you need something, I've got my cell."
I disconnect and look at Tomasetti. "I don't have time to drive back to the farm for my Explorer, so I'm going to have to commandeer your vehicle." I'm only half kidding.
He's already got his keys in hand. "You've got a driver, too, if you want it."
"I do." I look at Lois. "Call everyone in the department. Make sure they're okay. Then I want every officer on duty. Pickles and Mona, too. Unless they're dealing with their own emergency. First priority is the injured, most critical first. We're setting up a temporary shelter at the VFW."
"Call one of the guys-T.J. or Skid-and get them to fire up that generator for you so we have power here at the station. It might be a while before we get our power back, and I'd like to get the phones up and running."
I take the stairs two at a time to the top. Tomasetti and Lois bring up the rear. Then I'm through the door, and as I tread down the hall, I feel the cool, damp air coming through the broken window. Outside, the tornado sirens wail their eerie song. Though it's late afternoon, it's nearly as dark as night, so I turn on the Maglite.
I reach the reception area and look around. My heart sinks as I take in the damage. The blinds flap in the wind coming in through the window. Rain sweeps in with every gust. Water glistens on the floor. An aluminum trash-can lid is lodged between the blinds and the sill. Shards of glass, chunks of wood, and other small debris-leaves and twigs and trash-litter the floor. There's paper everywhere.
"Looks like we dodged the bullet here," comes Tomasetti's voice from behind me.
"Computer and radio are dry." It's the only positive comment I can come up with.
"Oh my God." Lois looks a little shell-shocked as she walks over to her desk. "Want me to call that glass guy up in Millersburg about that window?"
Usually we require three estimates on any work done for the township. Since time-and security-are at issue here, I reply with, "Get him down here within the hour. If he can't replace the glass today, I want it secured some other way. Lois, if you smell any gas or smoke, get out and call the gas company and then call me."
"Okeydoke." She rounds the reception desk and gets behind the phone console, which is eerily silent.
"I'm going to go down to the trailer park to see if anyone's hurt," I tell her. "Call me if you need anything."
Outside the window, the rain pours down, slapping against the concrete like a thousand angry fists.
Copyright © 2015 by Linda Castillo