Ear-piercing sirens surround me. The noise doesn’t strike fear because the alarms are a familiar sound. It’s the yelps from my dog, Bruno, which cut me deep. After hunting his barks for ten minutes, he’s led me far from the safety of our house.
Pain doubles me over. I press my hand against the stich in my side and stumble. Jagged breaths trigger a coughing fit that takes me to my knees. Refusing to quit my search, I stand and ball my sleeve to wipe away tears and anxiety.
Pellets of ice crunch under my feet as I stagger forward in the bright green light.
The town is lifeless. Stagnate. Eerie.
My attention shifts to the dark, churning heavens. The beast is almost here.
From far away, I hear Bruno’s cry. I race after it as if I’m a child chasing airborne bubbles. Pivoting on my toes, I run towards any sound I think might be him. However, by the time I reach the end of a street, I’m alone. My insides twist.
Wind now blows hard at my back, lifting my hair off my shoulders. A gust of air balloons my shirt. My pants ripple against my legs.
I turn to witness the beast as it roars, announcing its arrival. It surges forward on the edge of our town, not waiting to be asked in. And, like an unwelcome houseguest, it begins to eat everything in its path, spitting out light poles and cars as if they were chicken bones.
Even though I’m miles away, my hair whips in its fury, stinging my face. Rain slices through the heavy atmosphere. I lift my arm to shield my eyes from the rabid creature’s spittle.
Electricity crackles and the smell of charred wood fills my nose. The hair on my arms stands at attention out of respect for the danger. A chill crawls up my spine, settling around my shoulders until I shake it off. Frozen, I’m in awe of the tempest eager to destroy my life.
The twister’s stomach swells. It moans and groans from its gluttony. I’m mesmerized as it pukes up splinters of houses.
Then it sees me and changes paths. The ravenous beast, woken from its winter hibernation, stalks me.
A dog’s whimper crashes into my consciousness and diverts my attention.
I turn away.
The monster growls. It’s annoyed that I want to leave its presence and it stretches its long arms, holding me in its embrace. Forceful gusts keep me in the intruder’s grasp while it staggers closer, drunk on its own power.
The storm wants to play. Toy with me. And I’m transformed into nothing more than a puppet tied to strings. Teasing me, it allows me to gain distance from it before it yanks me back into its grip. Powerless, I’m at its beck and call.
The will to fight clings to the shell of my body like a frightened child does its mother. My mind fogs as my legs weaken. Then, Bruno calls out to me and my resolve fortifies.
In its effort to tire out its prey, my adversary has unknowingly lit a fire deep within me. It doesn’t understand that survival is not an innate trait. The attribute is born of need. And I need to find my best friend.
When the tornado takes a breath, I run. My flight does not go unnoticed. The storm throws the town’s rubble at me to block my escape. With a continued duck and weave, I work my way through the beast’s tantrum. I sidestep what looks like my neighbor’s car.
My defiance breaks my opponent’s spirit. He disappears but his tears rain down on me. Papers float from the sky.
I bend to scoop up the battered belongings of a stranger. To my surprise, the bank statement I hold is mine. I grab another. It’s a picture of Bruno. My heart aches. I’m sure he’s scared, and for all I know, he’s looking for me, too. Because that’s what you do for one you love.
A mix of every good dog alive, he is my oldest companion. Sharing all my secrets, he was there for me during my darkest hours. Now, it’s my turn to return the favor of loyalty.
Frantic, I yell for him. I choke back the quiver in my voice. It will only frighten him more. In a whisper, I pray for God to help. As the words leave my mouth, I hear a bark. My heart pounds against my chest and tears of joy carve a path down my cheek.
Following his muffled cries, I’m led to a porch with broken lattice. On hands and knees I crawl just past the muddy opening. Musty dolls and rags from a forgotten past assault my senses. I wince but the smell doesn’t stop me from scanning the darkness for my beloved dog. If he’s under here, he’s veiled in black.
He doesn’t answer. Then the sound of his customary tail wag reaches me. A thump never sounded so good. “Come here boy.” I pat the slick, wet ground. This time he whimpers but makes no effort to join me.
“It’s not safe here.” My voice wavers.
Something knocks my foot. Twisting, I see a small tree branch resting at my feet. “Bruno! Come!” The harsh tone of my words makes me cringe. However, the rustle of movement elicits a wave of relief. With a reluctant laugh, I call again.
Light brown eyes meet mine as Bruno’s warm tongue licks my nose. He stinks and I cough, wiping my face. I take a moment to scratch his dirt-covered ear. Scooting backwards, I inch my way out from under the porch. He doesn’t follow.
“Come on, boy.”
I use my angry voice.
He won’t budge.
Checking my surroundings, I fight the urge to shake. Once again, the town looks like a present wrapped with calm, green cellophane, ready to be ripped into.
We are not safe.
Blindly, I reach in to see if I can drag out my best friend. My fingertips graze his collar as he backs away. He barks.
I scoot backwards and jump to my feet. Quickly, I examine the integrity of the structure. Concrete steps and four-by-four columns hold up the porch. The house looks deserted, but I don’t dare waste time breaking in. Besides, he wouldn’t follow me in there either.
The air shifts. Time has run out. It’s this or nothing, so I dive back under the porch. Dirt flies into my mouth, getting sucked down my windpipe. Grit grinds between my teeth as I spit out earth and collapse into another coughing fit.
Bruno cowers down on his front paws with his hind end raised. He barks close to my face.
I push him away.
The wood above me shakes.
I glance back to the opening. Debris swirls, looking for a place to settle, but the storm won’t let it. A lattice panel rips from the porch. Urgency laces Bruno’s barks as he retreats into the darkness, only to return a second later.
Taking his cue, I scamper to the back of the shelter. Another panel tears away. Light filters in. I claw my way through the dirt and gravel until I reach my dog.
He’s dug a pit close to the foundation. It’s large, but not deep enough for the two of us.
The wood above my head lifts. Glass shatters. The beast is picking the porch apart one piece at a time, searching for me. As the shelter disintegrates, I pull my companion into the hole.
The structure moans in protest and the storm howls in response.
Bruno shakes in my grasp. I press him into my body but he fights, ripping my flesh. He struggles and snaps at the air. He doesn’t understand. If he goes, I go.
Metal scrapes along the few remaining planks. I tighten my grip, refusing to let my best friend slip through my fingers.
The angry tornado breathes down my neck, huffing and puffing at my disobedience. He pulls at my feet. I cower and squeeze my eyes shut. He lifts both Bruno and I into his arms, but then tears Bruno away, leaving me holding only a blue collar.
Then—the fight is over.
Local news stations play the coverage of the tiny town for weeks. Government people sort through the bodies of the fallen. Makeshift shelters are constructed for the homeless.
Neighbors search for the remnants of their lives.
Tears spill every time I stand at the hole that was once my house. I know now that Bruno saved my life. He drew me away from an assured death to give me a chance to fight for a future. The thought warms me. I reach for his ear to scratch, but my hand comes up empty. He’s not there. The familiar action has not accepted its new unwanted counterpart.
My bruises have faded. My cuts have scabbed. But nightmares keep the wounds as fresh as the moment they occurred. The beast still whispers in my ear. Its voice still lingers in the wind.
Without my permission, the past takes residency in my mind. A companion I do not want, but is permanently attached to my soul, etched into my personal history. I will move on. The scar will fade, but not disappear. It’s part of what makes me who I am.
Climbing into my truck, I sit and blow out a controlled breath. My insides clench as the blue collar hanging from the rearview mirror catches my eye. I caress the braided nylon and run my thumb over the tag.
The truck roars to life and I drive to the place where I now spend my afternoons. I park, grab a paper bag and walk into a white reception room.
“Go on back,” the woman says without looking up.
Barks and yelps of dogs fill the hall. The vet’s office is overrun with displaced and injured animals from the storm. Some no longer have owners to collect them and a foster program has been put into place.
I push through the door and find my way to the kennel I need. Reaching in, I scratch soft, brown fur.
Careful not to touch any of Bruno’s wounds, I rub only his ear.
“Look here, boy.” I open the paper bag. “I got this for you.” Pulling out a full body harness, I hold it up, smiling at the sound of rapid thumps from his tail.
Sharp pain strikes my hands and knees as my body hits the bank’s lobby floor. My mind races to past Teller training sessions.
“If a robber tries to remove you from the scene, become ‘dead weight,’” A man always said.
Now, I wince at the realization of those words and at the gunpowder lingering in the air.
A customer on his side faces me. Wide eyes stare into mine. His mouth opens and closes with urgency. But the gunshot ringing in my ears prevents me from deciphering his words. My heart sinks. What if he’s giving me his last message for a loved one? What if I’m next and nobody bothers to tell my baby boy how much I love him?
Tears pool around my cheek that’s smashed against the floor. Each breath sucks the salty liquid into my nostril, smothering me. I twitch.
“I said not to move.”
The deep, calm voice comes from the teller station behind me. Not sure if I should be thankful that I can now hear, I squeeze my eyes shut and hope he’s not talking to me. My body aches to sob. I restrict all movement, but a small tremble escapes.
Other than the sound of footsteps, the robbers are silent. The lack of gun spray and profanities shows an air of professionalism. Yes, they shot the man next to me, but it was a conscious and effective way to gain submission.
The sound of a low groan compels me to open my eyes.
Blood drips from the corner of the man’s mouth. His body jerks. Glossy eyes focus on me.
I inch my hand close to his. My pinky touches the tips of his fingers.
A low gasp hisses from his lips. As the flesh on his face relaxes, his fixed gawk loses comprehension.
I stare at his motionless torso.
Tightness grips my chest. I snap my eyelids closed. Pain spreads in my throat from holding back my emotions. An unbearable lump builds. I choke back a sob before I make myself the next target. Fear consumes me, and I lock every muscle in my body. It is after all the only thing I can control.
My stomach grows cold on the stone floor. Weird thoughts run through my mind. Are all the lights turned off at home? Does the car have gas? Did I lock the front door?
All concept of time is gone. Has it been five minutes? An hour? My limbs feel weighted but tranquil, like after climbing into bed at the end of a day at the lake. The longing to sleep engulfs me. I drift. Alone. Darkness edges my consciousness.
I think I’m dreaming. Yet in the deep recesses of my mind, I’m awake. And when the sensation of warm liquid soaks my side, it confuses me. Moving slightly, I glance down.
High-pitched shrieks fill the room. At first, I don’t understand they come from me. My back now presses against the wall of the teller station where I must have scurried to get away from the gore.
Blood covers the side of my body. I glance to the lifeless customer. A smeared, wide crimson trail leads from him to my feet.
I’m still screaming when a masked man lifts me by the collar.
“Shut the hell up.” His voice is tight. His eyes are wide. He’s losing control.
I push at his face and my body thrashes. The man struggles to control me. Another masked thief rushes my way. He lifts his hand.
The blow blackens my vision for a second and the robber to lose his grip on me. I spill to the floor. Hesitant of where to run, I get to my feet. Where I go doesn’t matter because I know I’m dead. Dead from the moment I screamed. But I still need to try for my family.
A hand grips my forearm.
The blood acts as a lubricant. I slip from his grasp. Reaching the front door, my shoulder crashes against the locked barrier. My head spins and I stumble to the cold ceramic tile. The pungent smell of death surrounds me.
Undefeated, I crawl forward to bang on the window. The blood left on my hands streaks the glass. Police watch me from outside. One officer surges forward, but another pulls him back. Sadness and pity fill every face staring back at me. They understand my fate, too.
I whimper as my pounding fades to mere slaps. The coldness of a hard gun barrel presses into my temple. I cower and pray.
Two men haul me off. I’m dead weight but I don’t think it will save me. As I’m dragged away I witness a mother shielding her small child. She doesn’t lift her head, but I hear her shush the muffled cries beneath her.
I notice three employees on their stomachs, eyes screwed tight. They grasp each other’s hands, intertwining their arms, non-moving. They remember their training.
The robbers yank me around the teller station. The moment they drop my body, I curl into a fetal position and cover my ears with my hands. Bearing down, I wait for the gunshot.
Will I die instantly?
Time passes. My arms grow tired.
Why haven’t they pulled the trigger?
I open my eyes. I’m alone. The lights flicker off. Drawing in my lower lip, a metallic taste fills my mouth. I fight the urge to vomit.
A phone rings. Negotiations begin.
I know, as well as they do, it’s a stalling tactic.
“She’s alive,” one of them says. “Not unless she acts out again.” Once more, he sounds like a calm, controlled villain. I don’t know what is worse: a mad man who will kill me in a violent rage, or a meticulous man who prolongs the wait.
I relax enough to weep. Barely audible cries of relief escape from me in jagged breaths.
Cold water rains down on me. Gasps and yelps come from the lobby.
“The cops set off the sprinklers. It’s time to go.”
The two men rush to finish their job. Drawers bang. Glass breaks. Hurried steps swirl around me. I scoot back into the shadows.
“Where do you think you’re going?” A robber pulls me close by the front of my blouse. I recoil from the spittle spraying from his mouth. “That little stunt you pulled got you a ticket out of here.”
“Please!” I tug at his grip, understanding what will happen if I go. “My name is Lucy. I’m twenty-three. I’m married. I have a baby boy at home.” I attempt to make them see me as a real person, not a defiant hostage.
The robber releases me only to jam the barrel of his gun deep into my spine. He grinds the metal against the bone. The intense agony elicits uncontrollable wails. I arch my back and he grabs my hair.
I stagger forward. Pain strikes the back of my head. Tape rips. Darkness engulfs me.
I wake in a pitch-black box. Wrist and legs bound, my hands rest at my crotch.
Tape pushes something deep in my mouth. I’m denied the ability to swallow. The blockage triggers my gag reflex. Fright squeezes my chest. I tremble hysterically in my coffin.
Sobs overtake me. Congestion fills the back of my throat and nose. I lurch, trying to breath. Each time my lungs heave, they burn. The sensation creeps up my esophagus. A sliver of air gets through my nasal passage. It’s not enough!
Rubbing my cheek on my shoulder, I hope to catch the edge of the tape on my clothes. At the same time I use my tongue to shove the gag away from my throat. I tire from the struggle. And after many unsuccessful attempts, I let go. Submitting to my fate.
Calmly, I think of my life, husband and then, my baby boy. His smell. His coo. The delightful way he feels in my arms. How each of his cries means something different. How my husband still hasn’t figured them out.
My heart aches. I will never see my child again.
Anger consumes me. I kick my legs, fighting the acceptance of death. My feet hit a wall with a loud thump. Rocking back and forth, I hit the sides of my prison.
Light blinds me. Hands grab. Skin rips. Gasping for air, I choke, falling to my knees. A warm hand touches my back.
“Get the oxygen,” a man says as he cradles me, removing the zip ties from my limbs.
Moments later, I have a clear plastic mask over my mouth and nose. My three coworkers, along with the woman and her child, huddle together across the room. Each one takes turns peeking over their shoulders at me.
“Can you walk?” an older paramedic asks.
I nod and stand. Before I take a step, I ask, “What happened?”
“The robbers locked the other hostages in the vault. Then they stuffed you into that sarcophagus style bench there.” He nods behind me. “They tried to negotiate your location for their escape. Told the police you were critically injured. It didn’t work.” Shifting his weight, he rubs his chin. “Took two men to push off that marble top. You’re one lucky girl.”
I glance to the black six-foot long seat. “Mother,” I whisper.
“I’m not a girl.” Clearing my throat, I walk by the man. “I’m a Mother.”