I caught a flash of Tim’s pale blue eyes as he swiveled back in his seat and faced the road. There was something in them that I couldn’t place, as if the storm clouds that were blotting out the sun and sky were also blocking the usual light of juvenile joviality that was always shining through. I looked back out the window, trying to see through the darkened horizon and silent stone buildings to the ruins of my adopted home town.
This is a once in a lifetime thing for Tuscaloosa, the radio said. Sitting on the bottom floor of the dorm, surrounded by the other residents—all strangers to me—cramming for finals had still seemed like the highest priority, and, somehow, it still did, even with the echoes of the deejay preaching Southern devastation to our open ears.
I can’t believe this!
What? I said, for want of some better way to react.
This, said Tim, my town, this is my home town! He sighed. And this.
I sighed as well, reveling in the slow expulsion of breath. The line of cars before us budged at last, and we crept forward a few feet. Even as the amount of time we spent sitting on the floor seemed to grow with each minute, I only began to grasp that a huge tornado had touched down in Tuscaloosa when the strangers surrounding me, huddled around laptop screens, offered a single collective gasp. There was a tingling in my legs but I stayed put; a tingling in my lungs, after it was over, moved me.
There was a sense of relief outside, supplemented by the sweet interior massage of tobacco. Ash floated down from my cigarette tip to the soaked earth, which was the green of nature thankful to be spared.
Tim and I stopped in Northport and got food: chicken, hot and sweet. We said nothing. When I looked up his eyes were elsewhere, and to speak first seemed wrong, so I ate. It was night outside, no longer merely dark, and the line of people waiting to order their food seemed wearier than before. Absent was the usual tense annoyance of waiting; now things seemed placid, as if the hungry patrons had had the wind knocked out of them.
Tim spoke. Good thing we got here when we did.
Anne wants me to pick something up for her.
You cool with waiting?
Dad called when I was playing guitar and asked me how I was.
I’m fine. The power is out.
You’re okay though?
Were you scared?
Even remembering the gasp, I thought it was an odd question. Uh… not really.
Well you should have been. It was a hell of a storm.
It agitated me, but this wasn’t a time for conflict: there was a seriousness in his voice that prodded the inside of my skull. Outside the clouds still ruled the sky, and inside, without man-made sources, light was quickly being sucked out of the air. I strummed the guitar. It was flat, but I didn’t feel like tuning it. I set it back against the wall.
Anne greeted Tim with an embrace and me with an awkward wave. It was appropriate, but I still couldn’t help but feel the sting, a dagger in my abdomen and emptiness in my arms. It was a stupid thing to be thinking about at such a time. They sat together on Anne’s couch, in the dark. I sat in a chair with moonlight cast upon me.
Was it bad?
We tried to see. The roads are blocked off.
That makes sense.
I kept silent, the ghost in the room, an alien presence. In their eyes Texas must have been no different than Mars: distant and dusty and uninhabitable. I’d barely inhabited it myself: years spent locked away in my own personal tower, reading books, watching films, struggling to be noticeable in a world of others desiring the same. Perhaps not a terrible existence, but certainly one incomplete.
Sorry the chicken’s cold. It was really crowded and there were a lot of people on the road.
It’s okay. I’m not as hungry as I thought I was.
I cast a glance at the box of chicken. In the moonlight it was a sickly yellow color. I was hungry, but in my mind, not my stomach. Sweat ran down my forehead and stung my eyes.
Are you hot, Paul?
What? It was disarming, being addressed, especially considering I was a ghost.
It’s hot in here.
You want to go?
Anne’s arms tightened around Tim. Her eyes were bright, reflecting the fear and the need that had lay dormant in the moonlight.
We can take a walk, the three of us, I suggested. If Anne wants to.
Tim looked at her, still with an arm wrapped firmly around him. For a moment, when she looked back at him, she was totally and truly his: her arms were in chains, her eyes were eternally focused on a single point, and her feet did not touch the ground. Then he spoke, and she was herself again.
Do you want to?
Yes, she said, not indicating that this was anything miraculous.
It was completely dark outside since the power was out: all that could be seen was what the moonlight made visible. Tim and Anne walked arm-in-arm—she clung to him, and he supported her—and I alone trudged behind them, smoking the last cigarette of the pack in silence.
Oh my gosh, it’s so dark.
I know. It’s weird.
We’d brought the chicken in and Tim and Anne held each other, each assuring the other that everything—and, more importantly, everyone—was alright. My brain was beginning to understand the horror, but, horribly, my heart would not react. I took a worried puff on my cigarette, forgetting that I was trying to savor it.
You forget how dark it can get when all of the lights go out. Neither of them was looking at me, but I nodded in silent agreement.
Sitting in front of an adjacent dorm were four students, three guys and one girl. The guys were smoking cheap pipes and the girl leaned from one shoulder to the other, talking without speaking.
What’s up, guys?
Tim was better with people than me, so I left it to him to talk. I thought for a long time that it was better to be a ghost, a fly on the wall, and that you could learn more about people that way. It was an oddly scientific approach: observe them in their natural habitat, view them as they really are, and it seemed to work until it began to dawn on me that I was only viewing exteriors: exoskeletons that were beautiful but opaque, a carved wooden chest that was full of gold. By the time I realized that people were far more complicated than even the best art could suggest, I had dug myself firmly into a hole, out of which it would be extremely difficult to climb. I figured it was worth it, though, because of the beauty I saw glittering in the keyhole of that treasure chest.
Have you seen the video?
We gathered around the small screen. It was enormous, a black cloud of death that towered over Tuscaloosa, mercilessly judging us all; the pillar described in Exodus, but destroying rather than guiding, damning rather than saving. Its powers were not only physical but extended into other realms as well: watching it, the air seemed colder, the night darker, and my body an empty cavity, the soul sucked out and blown away. Anne gasped, Tim seemed not to breathe. It was the first any of us had seen of the tornado.
Are you guys from Tuscaloosa?
I’m not, I said. No one responded.
Yeah. You guys?
My mind wandered as they discussed local hot spots, shared experiences, the inevitable slow rebuilding of the town. A curtain had been drawn between me and them: the curtain of understanding, the kind that could not be passed through but only peeked through, and even that only in fleeting and distant glimpses.
When Tim decided that it was time for us to leave I did not say goodbye to our new friends, for we had not exchanged more than a few words. As I turned my back to them their already nameless faces faded from my mind, as mine surely did from theirs. They were ghosts in a dead town.
Tim and I dropped Anne off and walked back to our dorm together in silence and near blackness. My eyes strained to pick out familiar sights in the dark: the halls, the lake, the dining hall, and though they were there, they seemed like monuments with their text weathered away. Tim caught my glance and smiled. I smiled back.
So what’s the plan?
I don’t know. I’ll leave on Friday, I guess, since it’s too dark to pack now.
And go back to Texas?
Well, if you want to stay longer, my house is open to you.
Nah, thanks though. I think I just want to be home.
We opened the door and a pillow of hot air pushed against our faces.
The A/C went out without power.
Let’s stay outside.
I agreed through action, and the two of us stood in the night, staring into a deeper blackness. I also sensed one inward, my sense of home knocked loose by a malevolent black cloud. That word once again appeared, floating in the void like the specter of a barely-remembered villain: dead. The blackness and soft-spoken helplessness and the foreboding: this wasn’t the Tuscaloosa I knew. I knew a bright, living city, not only existing in its contradictions but reveling in them, simultaneously a part of its inhabitants while being made up of them. I think that’s why I didn’t feel. It was like seeing a stranger in a coffin and being told it was my brother.
Now there was only guilt at running away, and a sense that I had been cheated, though out of what I wasn’t quite sure. The town would return to life and I would return to the town, but the year as it stood was incomplete, as if the last few pages had been torn out of a book. I would never be able to read those pages, but Tuscaloosa would be resurrected, with or without me.
Let’s go in. I followed.
When I woke up the next day Tim had disappeared, so I wandered. With classes cancelled the campus was a desolate place: directly untouched, but by proxy cut to the core, as much in ruins as the most ravaged areas. My phone charger was in my pocket and I followed the sounds of speech to the Strip. People stared straight ahead, lost without their thoughts, which were with those in need, grocery bags hanging from their clenched fists. I was the only one really looking at faces, furrowed brows and tightened lips, mentally documenting details. Other eyes longed for tangible horror; tangible horror could be dealt with, but the unseen could no more be cradled or beaten than a ghost.
The doors of Publix were open and I went in, grabbing a quart of orange juice from the shopping cart out front. A manager smiled at me as I did, and I returned his expression with a weak smile of my own.
People sat by the walls, charging their phones and laptops, and a group of them made way for me. The little red light appeared and I daydreamed and drank the juice straight from the carton. A girl sitting beside me was talking on her cell phone. She said, It’s like a third-world country or something.
The children of Africa and East Asia had nothing. We, even with our ashes, had everything, and most of us would drive away to our homes and sit in comforting silence with our families. In that, at least, we were lucky.
Your phone’s ringing.
This to me. I thanked her and spoke to Mom.
Are you okay?
Are your friends?
I don’t know. My phone’s been dead and I haven’t heard from everyone yet.
Thank goodness you’re okay.
Were you scared?
Well, I was. Maybe you should have been.
I love you.
I love you, too.
I called Tim but he didn’t answer. One by one I went through names, dialing. No answers. I finished off the carton and set it aside. My legs tingled. I sat in silence, thinking of nothing.
After a couple of hours I returned to the dorm. I packed clothes and books and bed sheets, my little home, into boxes. As I pulled the comforter from my bed I stopped, holding it in my hands. It seemed damp; the power was still out. The sun was beginning to set outside, dying the sky a purple and red that was normally beautiful but now seemed ugly. I heard our door open.
Hey, I called.
Tim was in the doorway.
When are you leaving?
Are you staying here?
He didn’t miss a beat: You can stay at my house if you want.
There’s air conditioning.
Sounds good. Maybe. Is everyone okay?
Like my family everyone?
Like everyone everyone.
He paused. Everyone I’ve talked to is fine. But not everyone is, I guess.
For a moment we watched the sunset, being washed out now by a creeping blue-black.
Can you help me get my sheets?
The first thing Tim did when we went into his house was hold his parents tightly to him and choke back tears. I looked away and swallowed, a voyeur, stranger in a strange land rendered unrecognizable. They didn’t seem to break apart: instead, the curtain dropped, or the shot faded to black.
I didn’t realize how hungry I was until Tim’s mom made a late dinner for he and I. I devoured the soup and toast and salad, and I listened.
I was helping clean up today.
Fifteenth and McFarland.
They let you in?
I told them my dad’s business was in the complex. They believed me. A lot of people were there that weren’t supposed to be, I think. You could tell because they looked lost.
So they could tell you didn’t belong, then?
Yeah. Probably. There wasn’t much we could do besides pick up scraps of wood.
It was bad?
Tim stared down, into his soup. Terrible, he said.
Tim was lying on his bed, staring at the ceiling. I told him I was going to bed and that I would be getting up pretty early, and he remained in his bed as he told me goodbye, so I went into the guest bedroom and closed the door and my eyes (the books and pictures and knick-knacks) and mind (the life and death and legions of the lost) wander until I found myself in the darkness and I found my body in bed, and I closed my eyes and pretended that I didn’t exist and, after a short wait, I didn’t, at least for a little while.