We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.
We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. There was no help for it. The gymnasium of the local high school had been the designated emergency shelter for the town of Eulogy since it had been built. Nobody thought that a tornado would demolish the entire town, leaving only three walls and no roof. Even as they set up what meager bedding they could find strewn about the wreckage, the remaining townspeople, still covered in dirt, splinters, and blood, were puzzled. Two of them were whispering in hushed tones in a cot near her. The gymnasium was supposed to have withstood the winds, up to 200mph, they had been told. Yet this tornado had been a minor one, the weathermen all said. As it was, it would take three days for rescue crews to get here.
Elsie pursed her lips, then bit them to keep from speaking curtly to the women. It did no good to try to figure out the why. The dead were dead, and the town was gone. She felt a sharp stab of anger at her missing husband, followed by an equally intense burst of gratitude that the tornado had struck on a weekend, and then she was struck by grief at everyone she had lost in the past 24 hours. The image of her son being ripped out of her arms, pulled into the vortex, flashed before her in the dark. She would always bear the marks on her skin where Samuel had tried to hold on to her, and his screams would ring forever in her ears. But she had one child left, and that child needed her to be strong. Elsie closed her eyes, then grit her teeth for a moment, and then let her tears silently fall. She no longer seemed in control of when the waterworks would start up, but she regretted the lack of hiding places. She preferred to cry alone, but there was no privacy tonight, when they were all gathered here to shelter each other in spite of the lack of a roof.
Elsie turned her face away from her six year old daughter, and tried to compose herself. She then leaned closer to her only surviving child, pulling her close. Elsie never wanted to let go. She wanted to hug her daughter, until the horror of this disaster disappeared, but soon Lizzie began to wriggle, pushing at her mother to be released. So she let her go with a deep exhale of breath. The two remaining Pattersons lay side by side on the gymnasium floor, heads together, and stared at the stars. With no lights to clutter the sky, the immensity of the world beyond where they lay struck Elsie like a punch.
"Which star is that, Mama?" Lizzie pointed to the middle star in the belt of Orion.
"That star is your older brother Jimmy," Elsie choked back tears, and tried to sound cheerful. "And that one to the right is your sister Joanna, and the one on the left is your little brother Samuel. They're all up there watching over us, to keep us safe, Lizzie."
"The wind blew them up there?"
"Yes, my love."
"Why didn't I get blown up there, too?"
"Well, Lizzie," Elsie let a small sob escape, a hitch in her breathing that could pass unnoticed. "We can't all be the stars in the sky. If we are all up there, who is going to look up and admire the stars? They shine so bright for us because they want to be remembered."
Lizzie stifled a yawn, then rolled toward her mother and took her hand.
"We will remember, Mama." Lizzie closed her eyes, drifting off to sleep, while Elsie kept watch.