2nd place - Bigger than the Wind by Jim Kroepfl
Bigger Than The Wind
by Jim Kroepfl
It’s been three days since the wind took my dad. Three days of huddling in the old school building trying to push the image out of my head, wondering if we can hang on until spring. I think about Mandi and hope she’s safe in her cellar, bravely waiting it out, praying for her family. I should have insisted she come here. I should have made her. I think about Mandi all the time, because when I do, I don’t hear the wind.
My name is Caleb. I live on the plains in eastern Colorado, where weather plays a bigger role in your life than church or family. Summer can be bone dry for months and then deluge for weeks. A winter’s snowstorm can dump three feet of snow, stranding cattle and putting your family to ruin. And every autumn we get windstorms, ripping out of the Rockies like angry gods and lasting for days. But never like this.
This windstorm hasn’t stopped in fifty-eight days.
It came on like army worms: slow and relentless. Strong, fall winds that got worse every day, grabbing at you and knocking you over. I first knew it was something unusual when Mandi and I were in the scoring tower next to the football field. We talked for the first time about maybe being together, and jumping in the car one day to leave the plains for good.
The winds started blowing in, like every fall morning, but they got fierce in a hurry. The metal tower started creaking, and before long we felt it bend and sway. Then all of a sudden, the whole tower lurched, throwing Mandi into me, and I saw the fear in her eyes.
“Let’s get out of here,” I yelled, helping her up. We struggled down the thin metal ladder with the wind pulling at our clothes. The trees were thrashing behind us and an aspen snapped in half. When we made it back to her car, we collapsed in the seats, all out of breath.
People were able to move around town for a while, though it was a struggle and got worse every day. It wasn’t long before the school closed and the store was empty. When none of the phones worked, we knew the cell tower was gone.
“It’s going to be a rough winter,” Dad said as we were fitting out the cellar with water, canned food, and batteries.
“Has it ever been like this?” I asked.
He didn’t say anything, and I knew that it hadn’t.
And then on November 3rd, the first really big wind came. It took the trees out first, then the windows. We all scrambled to find shelter. After that, you could hardly go outside, except in the late afternoon when it died down a little.
I cried the day I helped Mandi try to find her dog. A lot of animals are just plain missing, and everyone knows the wind took them, but nobody says it out loud. Calling out didn’t do any good since even a dog couldn’t hear over the wind, but Mandi yelled for Sierra as loud as she could. The wind was pushing her little Civic all over the streets and pelting us with branches until it got too dangerous to be outside. When we had to give up looking, Mandi started crying. I put my hand on her shoulder and just let it stay there, and touching her felt like the only steady thing in the world.
Her parents went to Denver to buy supplies before the storm got really bad. Mandi hasn’t heard from them since we lost the phones. I hope they didn’t try to get back; they never would have made it.
Mandi asked me to stay with her, and I think about what that might have meant before the storm. I told her I would, but that’s the night my Dad decided we had to move into the school. It’s one of the only buildings in town that might make it through the winter. Three stories of big, red, hundred-year-old blocks, surrounded by old oaks. When you walk through its imposing entrance and wide echoey halls, you know the town thought it had a future when they built it.
I like to come up to the third floor in the afternoon when the winds slow. I can see the whole town, including Mandi’s house, which is only half a block away. Street signs, roof shingles, lawn chairs and anything else you can imagine blow through the school yard. I saw part of a sign blow by and I recognized it: Sombrero Stables. The stables are forty miles away, which means the storm could be at least eighty miles wide, and it’s swirling.
There are nineteen of us living at the school, including Mr. Jonas who owns the bank and most of the land surrounding the town. He comes up to the third floor every day to survey things. He’ll scan the town and surrounding fields, then just stare at the bank building for the longest time, not saying anything, and I can see the muscles in his face get tenser and tenser.
We’ve been able to block certain areas in the school, and let the wind blow through others to lessen the pressure on the building. The winds would probably have to be twice as powerful to take the school down, but they’re getting stronger, and some houses that looked pretty sturdy about a month ago don’t look that way anymore.
We watched the Wilsons’ house go down, and it’s something I wished I had never seen. First the roof blew off, then the whole house came apart in a matter of minutes, and while we desperately hoped otherwise, they were all still in there: Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, Charlene and little Danny, clinging to the beams and plumbing fixtures as the walls broke up around them.
My dad couldn’t help himself and dashed into the storm to try and help. He never made it across the street. The wind grabbed hold of him, and he was just gone. I struggled and cried while Mr. Jonas and two of the other men held me back. Then, one by one, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson and both kids blew off into the wind, rolling away with the debris, screaming silently in the roar. None of us spoke for hours.
Jimmy’s been talking nonstop, and nobody really knows what to do with him. He only sleeps a few hours a night, and the rest of the time he’s constantly chattering in his high shaky voice.
“Do you think it’ll stop?” he asks me when we’re down in the locker room filling old mayonnaise jugs with water.
I don’t want to answer.
Everybody thinks about it. It’s all we think about. But nobody says they don’t think it will stop, because there’s nothing after that.
“The winds have lasted longer every year, but they’ve never been like this,” Jimmy says. “It could last all winter.”
“Yeah,” I say, as if we all haven’t thought the same thing every day for over a month.
Huh, small talk . . . the weather.
I think about Mandi and try to convince myself she’s all right. She needs to come here. Everybody does, but that’s probably not possible anymore.
“Do you ever feel like going into it?” Jimmy asks. “Just go outside and let it take you?”
“Don’t talk like that, Jimmy.”
“I can’t help it. I’ll be listening to the wind and start wondering what it would be like to walk right out into it.”
“Shut up,” I say with more anger in my voice than I mean to have.
“I wouldn’t do it.” Jimmy looks hurt. He turns away and I barely hear him over the wind, “But it would be like flying.”
Then he looks at the faucet. “Come on, Caleb. We’ve got to fill these jugs.”
I look down and the water is running over my hand. I change jugs, but the image of Jimmy flying in the wind doesn’t leave my head. And then I picture Mandi, ripped from the wreckage of her home, carried out into the plains, and I decide right then that I have to get her. There’s no way I’m going let the wind take her, like it took the Wilsons.
Like it took my dad.
“I’m going to get Mandi,” I tell Mr. Jonas when we get back upstairs. “She’s just across the street. I’ll crawl and set up ropes to bring her back.” I’m not sure if it will work, but I know I’m resolved.
“You’ll never make it,” Mr. Jonas says. His jaw is set and he looks me in the eye with hard seriousness.
“It’s only half a block.”
“It might as well be half way to Kansas. You don’t even know if she’s . . . still there.”
Mr. Jonas talks in a way that he assumes everyone will do what he tells them to do, but there must be a look on my face that shows him it’s no use trying to stop me, because he doesn’t say anything more after that.
He and Jimmy even help me get ready. I put on a thick leather letter jacket we find abandoned in an old lost-and-found box, and a borrowed motorcycle helmet and goggles. We find a couple of ropes in the boiler room.
In the afternoon, when the wind eases, we walk down to the big glass front doors, which are webbed with cracks but still intact. We tie one end of a rope around my waist and one end to the big radiator in the hallway. I shake their hands, and then the three of us force the door open enough for me to get through. I take a deep breath and push myself outside.
The wind blasts me against the rough stone blocks of the school and holds me there. It’s hard to catch my breath, and I have to hold the goggles onto my face. I ease down the wall, get on my stomach and start crawling.
The wind is tearing at me, roaring all around my body, and I thank God Jimmy thought of the cotton to put in my ears. I make my way through the schoolyard. Sticks, dirt and even rocks fly into me. When I get near the street, I tie the rope around one of the oak trunks, now just a tall jagged stump, and start the next rope.
I crawl across the street, and a gust begins to lift me. I splay out, trying to lower my center of gravity. Wind is pouring under me, levitating me as if I was an airplane on a runway. I’m a gust away from being picked up and driven into a tree or building. I claw into the asphalt with my fingernails trying to gain purchase and anchor myself to the ground. I let out my breath, trying to get flatter, heavier.
I will myself into the pavement.
The wind shifts a bit and my body drops back to the ground. Only after I feel the street against the whole length of me do I dare breathe again.
When I’ve regained my breath, and some of my confidence, I start crawling again. I inch my way across the street and finally reach the first house on Mandi’s block. I press myself against its wall. The siding is shaking, pulling at its nails. Staying low, I move from house to house, scraping myself along the walls.
And then, I’m there.
Her porch is gone, and the front door and all the windows are broken out. Inside, it’s a disaster. Paper and clothes and broken picture frames are blowing everywhere. A mattress is caught at an angle in the window frame, flapping wildly. I set the rope as best I can, tying it around the banister and a couch, then make my way through the kitchen, which is even more chaotic. The cupboard doors are beating open and closed, and the floor is covered with broken glass. I pull away the table that’s been blown against the cellar door. The wind grabs it and thrusts it against the far wall.
I force the door open, walk down the stairs, and I see her. Sitting in a corner, staring at a Coleman lamp, rocking back and forth.
She looks up and I can’t tell if she believes what she sees. I take off the helmet and it takes her a minute to register that it’s me.
“What are you . . . how . . .” she stammers. Her voice is shaking.
“I came to get you,” I say, but I barely hear myself because the adrenalin from my crawl and the sight of her still alive are making my heart pound louder than the wind.
“But . . .” Mandi is dumbstruck. Stuck in the well of a house that wasn’t going to protect her much longer, I’m sure she thought she was going to die.
“I crawled from the school, and I rigged a rope so we can get back. We’ll be safe there,” I say with as much assurance as I can martial.
And she breaks down. I put my arm around her and let her cry. When she’s done, she looks up at me and her face is a mix of exhaustion, disbelief, and hope and I know at that moment that we’re going to get back to the school. We’re going to make it until spring, no matter what. I know this more than anything I’ve known before—know it for the both of us—and right now, that’s all I need to know.