This is part of an assignment I wrote for Gemma Files’ Litreactor course, also known as Installment 3 of “Anne Picks Horror Writers Who Are Dedicated and Wildly Supportive Teachers and Also Wonderful Humans,” after Brad Carter and Stephen Graham Jones – two other professional writers I greatly admire who gave me some kickass guidance.
We were asked to really drill down into three to five moments in our lives in which we were genuinely afraid. This was the fear that I wound up working with for my story, which has since jumped right on over the reasonable word count of a short story and is barreling toward being a full-on novella.
It’s been an odd couple of months in which I’ve spent most of my free time either working on the story or watching Youtube videos of ballet dancers and tornadoes (both for story purposes). I hope I’ll be able to point you toward that finished piece soon, and that I’m not jinxing it by sharing its seed.
Anyway, here’s the fear.
I spent a good chunk of elementary school convinced I would die in a tornado. It seemed impossible that those things could exist in the world and not destroy me, or at the very least my house. I also have a very specific memory of being confused by the closed captioning icon that would flash in the upper right corner of the TV screen when a show came back from commercial, which I’d somehow convinced myself was a symbol for “tornado watch.”
This wasn’t exactly a rational fear – the climate I grew up in did occasionally produce tornadoes, but I was in a mountain town tucked up in the Ozarks (in a house with a perfectly sound finished basement, no less), not a farmhouse out in the middle of the Kansas or Oklahoma prairie. We did get lots of thunderstorms, though, and when the Weather Channel told me to watch for tornadoes, I was on. the. case.
I remember Mom packing us all downstairs – my brother and sister, the dog, and whatever cats we could round up. I also remember the sirens going off once or twice. That sound and the feeling it gave me are what jumped into my mind at the third blast of the Night’s Watch horn in A Song of Ice and Fire – the thing I always knew was lurking out there had finally arrived, and this was not a drill.
A few years ago, I saw the aftermath of the 2014 Vilonia tornado in central Arkansas where it had crossed I-40. It looked like a giant monster had stomped through the area. Crazy angles in the metal guiderails, trees stripped, crumpled like toothpicks, thrown all around the place, billboards and heaps of sheet metal lying around liked used Kleenexes. But the thing that was somehow even more upsetting about it was that it was such a short diameter of destruction. Maybe a half mile or so. Its path was so incredibly well-defined – a strip of the world torn off revealing absolute chaos underneath.
When my reptile brain tries to conceive of something touching the cloud-level sky and the ground at the same time, it feels like grabbing some kind of mental third rail. It’s just so cosmically awful. Lightning bolts trip that wire too, but at least lightning is brief. Tornadoes hang out and move around, in unpredictable directions. And they’re not really made of anything except motion. They’re such a perfect kinetic symbol of how completely out-of-control the world is, and how little bargaining power we have with our own fates.
I don’t panic about tornadoes anymore, but it doesn’t take much climate change science reading at all to make me sick to my stomach.
Here’s my favorite Youtube tornado (no one gets hurt).