The place didn’t scare me or nothing, because I ain’t never been bothered by that kind of thing. I always figured that a place is just a place. Don’t matter what happened there in the past; after something’s happened, it’s just a story, and stories can’t hurt you. Of course, I was a little worried about Annie. I didn’t know how she would take it. Because, yeah, even after nearly six months, it was still a pretty creepy place. The trees—the ones still alive at all—were all torn and shredded-looking. There was still a lot of junk scattered around; the other house places hadn’t been cleaned up. In a fencerow over across the pasture there was even still a car that nobody had bothered to pull out. There it was every time we stepped out our front door, wheels sticking up in the air like the legs on a dead animal. And then, too, there was how lonesome it was. Every place in the valley had been wrecked, even the brick house on the hill, and it seemed like nobody was in a hurry to rebuild. Six people had died in sight of our front steps, and nobody lived there anymore.
So yeah, like I say, I’ll grant you it wasn’t exactly a pleasant place to live. And I knew Annie would hear the stories—true ones and probably some made-up ones. She was a level-headed little thing, but she was just a little girl, after all. And I had to admit that some of the stories were pretty bad—the true ones, I mean. And some were kind of spooky. Like the telephone thing.
Two nights after the tornado came through, the sheriff’s office got a 9-1-1 call from 2915 Promise Land Road. So a deputy went rolling out to respond. Even before he got there he started thinking it was pretty damn weird to get a call from Promise Land Road. When he got to the address, he shined his light around.
There was nothing left there but a concrete pad. The trailer house that used to be there was now just a pile of junk on the opposite side of the road. The whole family—man, woman and a baby—killed. And for the next week they kept getting 9-1-1 calls from that address, two or even three times a day.
Of course, it was the box. The telephone box by the road was busted and there was a short or something. But it’s a spooky story, and just the kind of story one kid will tell to scare another.
And me and Annie had just moved in at 2915 Promise Land Road.
I didn’t choose to live there. The fact is, I was out of options, as they say. I had lost my job, like a couple hundred other people, when the Kaisermann Electric plant shut down, and there was absolutely nothing else to be found. Unemployment was running out and pretty soon I wouldn’t be able to even pay the rent no more. I hope you never find yourself in that kind of situation. I sat down and thought, “Well, what am I gonna do?” And there just wasn’t any answer. Having Annie to worry about made it worse, but on the other hand, if I hadn’t had Annie to think about, I don’t know what I would have done. Anyway, that’s where I was at when I ran into Mr. Rudolph. Usually I wouldn’t have gone near any deal with Karl Rudolph. But the state I was in, I don’t mind telling you I thanked God after me and him got through talking that day.
I had known Mr. Rudolph for years. Him and my daddy were big buddies—used to get together and swap lies. But as I say, I wouldn’t have willingly entered into a business deal with him. Mr. Rudolph has an auction business and is always up in the middle of some kind of transaction or other. This week he might have a bunch of cars, next week he’s a chicken farmer. He has twenty acres north of town just covered with…I don’t know…stuff. He buys and sells. It’s the dealing that he’s into, not the things themselves. The tornado came through and Mr. Karl Rudolph came through right behind it, buying up land from grieving relatives and poor folks with no insurance to rebuild with. He even made deals on wreckage. Would come up to somebody standing there knee-deep in what used to be their home and say, “I’ll clean all this up for you for fifty dollars and whatever I find in the pile.”
Among other things, Mr. Rudolph bought the lot at 2915 Promise Land Road. And he also bought four badly damaged duplexes a mile or so down from the meat packing plant. When I ran into him in the parking lot of the grocery store he asked me what I was up to. I said I wasn’t up to a damn thing. His eyes got all squinty and he chewed on the cigar butt he usually had in his mouth and he pointed at me. “I tell you what,” he said.
He hired me to oversee the crew he had rounded up to repair the duplexes. He would pay me a little bit of money—in cash, mind you; no need for a lot of complicated government paperwork—and would set up a trailer on the lot on Promise Land Road for me and Annie to live in rent-free. When the duplex deal was over with, there might be some other stuff I could do for him. It was what you might call a very dubious proposition. I didn’t ask one question. I just shook his hand and said, “Yes sir, Mr. Rudolph! I sure do appreciate it!”
It wasn’t much of a trailer house. Two bedrooms, one at either end, and a little living room/dining area and kitchen in the middle. One bathroom. But it wasn’t in bad shape. I don’t know how Mr. Rudolph came by it. Doesn’t matter. He hauled it in, set it up and we hooked up the utilities. The water and septic pipes from the old trailer were mostly still in place, just the ends busted from when the trailer lifted off. I figure he jiggered the electric meter some way; but like I say, I didn’t ask questions. There was a propane tank, but we wouldn’t need to hook that up until winter.
Annie didn’t like the place. I could tell that right off. She didn’t have much room inside and didn’t like to play outside. There wasn’t really a yard, anyway; it was all messed up around there. She had had some friends down the road from the place we used to rent, and she missed them. She didn’t like riding the school bus with a different bunch than she was used to. It was a lot of things. And a lot of kids would have kicked and fussed, but Annie wasn’t one to whine over stuff. She wasn’t but eight, but she’d been through a lot, losing her mother and all. But no, she didn’t much like it. It was a few nights after we moved in that she asked me about the other people.
“How old was the baby that lived here that got killed?” she said. We were at the little metal table, eating. I had made baloney sandwiches and she had made the macaroni and cheese.
“I don’t know for sure,” I said. “It was little, though.” I didn’t see any use in trying to make her not talk about it. I thought it was better to just let her talk it out. Maybe I was wrong.
“It was a little boy,” she said. “Do you know what his name was?”
“No. Their last name was Myers.” She knew that, of course. It was still on the mailbox I had found in the ditch and set back up.
After a minute she said, “Was their trailer-house like our trailer-house?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t remember seeing it.” I guess I must have. I had been down this road. But I didn’t remember. This was a little odd for Annie, asking all these questions. When we talked it was usually more just her telling me stuff.
She kind of poked around at her macaroni for a minute, then said, “What if there’s another tornado?” That was a fair question. And that one I could deal with, anyway.
“There won’t be another tornado, at least not one that comes right through here again. What are the odds of that?”
She just looked at me. That didn’t seem to impress her much.
“But here’s the deal,” I went on, “If there is bad weather, threatening or whatever, we won’t stay in this trailer. We’ll get in the truck and go to the schoolhouse. They have a shelter. See? That’s what we’ll do, so you don’t need to worry about it.”
That seemed to pacify her a little bit. But then her brow furrowed up again and I knew she wasn’t done yet. She was thinking it all through. She was smart. She was starting to get on my nerves, but I was proud of her at the same time.
“Mister and mizz Myers didn’t go to the shelter.” she said. “Wonder how come?”
See? Another good question. “I don’t know,” I said. “The storm came in the middle of the night, though. I guess they didn’t have time to get out.”
“Then what if—”
“Tell you what,” I said, an idea popping into my head, “Tomorrow I’ll go to Wal-mart and get a radio. A weather radio with an alarm on it. If bad weather is coming, it will go off and wake us up. I guess Mr. Myers didn’t have one. But I’ll get one tomorrow. You can keep it in your room and you’ll be in charge of it.”
That worked. She liked the idea of being in charge of the radio. I figured that had solved that. I thought I was pretty smart myself. Then a few minutes later I was throwing away the paper plates and she said, “Daddy…”
“Somebody said they never did find the baby.”
I turned around and looked at her. She was leaned way over with her chin and both her arms on the table, pushing her tea glass around.
“No, now, Annie,” I said. “No, no. That ain’t true. Somebody is just telling stories. They were all three inside the trailer house, and it blew over. They found all three and they had a funeral and everything. That’s all over. Don’t listen to no stories like that.”
She kept pushing the glass around. There was a little water on the table, so it slid around easy. “OK?” I said.
Her chin was on the table, so she had to nod kind of backwards, pulling her head up in the air. But she nodded and said, “OK.”
We went to bed early that night. I couldn’t afford a dish, and with just rabbit ears the TV only picked up two channels and one of them went in and out. There wasn’t much to stay up for. I lay there a while thinking about what she had said. Boy, whoever came up with that “never found the baby” thing was good. You hear that and the horror movie just kind of writes itself. Who the hell would tell a little girl something like that? Probably a little boy. I just hoped Annie wouldn’t start having nightmares because of it. She had nightmares for a while after her momma died. It was pretty bad.
And that story… It couldn’t be true, could it? Surely I would have heard about something like that.
Turned out it was me who had the nightmare. Sometime in the night I woke up all of a sudden, scared half to death. And then, you know how it is when you’re in a new place and you wake up and for a while you don’t know where you are? It took me a minute to calm down. Something had woke me up, a noise, I thought. But I listened and didn’t hear anything. As I settled down to go back to sleep, I tried to remember what I was dreaming, but it was gone. There was just a feeling like the noise that woke me was still echoing after I was awake. Echoing like thunder.
You know how much them damn weather radios cost? I couldn’t believe it. But I sure as hell couldn’t come home without one, so I bit the bullet. We put batteries in it and sat down to program it with the county names and the alarm codes and this and that. Annie read the instructions and I punched the buttons. It was tough. You need a degree of some kind to get through all the things you have to do to program one of them things, and Annie didn’t have much patience with me. We were both a little bit pissed off and sulky by the time we got through, but we finally got it done. Finally, the robot-sounding man said, “This is the voice of the National Weather Service…”
I put the radio on the folding tray that served as Annie’s nightstand and said, “All right then. You’re the weather girl.”
She grinned at that. She liked being the weather girl. She kept looking at the book and fiddling with the buttons. Fine. More power to her. I turned to leave.
“Daddy!” she said, and I stopped in the door. “The baby’s name was Michael.”
“Huh?” I said. “Oh. Yeah?”
“And his momma and daddy were Sandra and David. A girl at school used to know them.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well.” I nodded.
“I told them what you said about they all had a funeral.”
“Good,” I said. “Don’t turn that up too loud.” The box was blaring out something about relative humidity. I went to the ice box and got a beer.
The rest of that week went pretty well. Annie took to watching the news every night. She wanted to see the weather. I didn’t know how to take that. Kids get some damn thing into their heads and you start wondering if they’re going nuts or something. But she didn’t seem to be scared about the weather. She just wanted to know about it. And at least she wasn’t asking any more questions about that dead baby. So I thought, well hell, who cares? Maybe she really will be a weather girl some day. She’ll be cute enough, and I bet they make good money.
Nothing bad happened until the next Friday night. Or I guess it was Saturday morning.
Since it was Friday, I didn’t care when she went to bed. We both watched the ten o’clock news. There was a great big “H” sitting right on top of us on the weather map. Annie told me that stood for “high pressure,” and that meant clear skies. You don’t say? That’s nice. There was a big band of red and yellow on the radar, but that high pressure was pushing it up into Missouri and Illinois. There was a storm in the Gulf, but that big “H” was shoving it over toward Texas. I thought that if it was going to be that nice tomorrow we might go into town to the park, or maybe even up to the lake. It would be good for Annie to get away from that nasty, weedy place and run around somewhere where I wouldn’t have to worry that she might trip over some dead man’s bedstead or something.
At about two o’clock in the morning I heard a baby crying.
But that couldn’t be, so I thought I must be dreaming. Then the crying sound turned into some kind of high-pitched screech. I was kind of climbing my way out of sleep when all of a sudden something jarred me wide awake. A chain of crazy thoughts ran through my head–a truck hit the house, a plane crashed, an earthquake. Then the bedroom lit up like somebody took a picture and the whole house was rattled by a deafening crash of thunder. The bed shook as a gust of wind rocked the trailer.
What the hell?
That high, screeching sound went on and on. What was it? I threw off the sheet and reached for my pants. I had one leg in them when Annie started to scream.
I staggered and fell through the open bedroom door into the narrow hallway that led one way to the bathroom and the other to the living room. The screeching sound got louder. I managed to get my other leg into my pants and to stand up. I was standing by the trailer’s back door. We never used it; there weren’t even any steps set up out there, so I had it covered on the outside with plastic to save the air conditioning. There was another scalding flash in the door’s little slatted window and a sudden blast of wind so violent that the door rattled. Hail began to pound the plastic like fists beating on the door. I couldn’t believe the glass didn’t break. Another heart-stopping clap of thunder shook the house as I ran into the living room.
There was Annie, running toward me from her room, her nightshirt with the cartoon bear on it flapping behind her. She was carrying the weather radio; that’s where the screeching was coming from. Its alarm was blasting out, unbelievably loud. I thought it was supposed to alarm for a few seconds and then talk, but the screech just went on and on. Annie was in a complete panic.
“It’s after us!” she screamed, “It’s after us!”
I picked her up and hugged her close. The screeching from that damn radio tore through my head so that I couldn’t think straight, and the noise of wind and hail was deafening. The trailer was shaking now non-stop. I didn’t understand it, didn’t know what was going on, but we had to get out of there. There was a plastic tablecloth on the table. I snatched it off, sending salt and pepper shakers and a couple of Annie’s school books flying, and threw it over our heads. I snatched my truck keys out of the tray on top of the TV.
The sound outside had changed. There was no longer a whistle of wind. You couldn’t separate out the sounds any more. It was just a roar, and it was getting louder and louder. It rumbled and thudded with a kind of strange rhythm. Everything was shaking and it began to sound like people were beating on the walls with hammers. Then I realized that it was true, what everybody always said.
It sounded just like a freight train.
The house was no shelter. I knew that. It wasn’t even tied down! It might be horrible outside, but we stood no chance where we were. I forgot about getting to the truck and getting away. I just wanted to make it to the ditch. I pulled the tablecloth down over us and yelled into Annie’s ear, “Hold on to me!” Then I took a deep breath, threw open the front door and leaped down the steps.
I landed wrong. I made three or four stumbling steps and started to fall. I twisted around to keep from landing on Annie and hit the ground almost full on my back. The air went whooshing out of my lungs and Annie gave another shriek of fear.
And then everything got quiet.
Annie was still crying, but otherwise everything seemed very still. The screech had stopped. The roar was gone. I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t see anything for the tablecloth over our heads. I felt the gravel of the driveway under my back and I couldn’t understand it.
It was dry.
A man’s voice suddenly spoke right next to me, and I jerked. “The record low of forty-eight degrees was set in 1956…” It was the robot voice on the weather radio. It was droning about temperatures and stuff. I started coughing and trying to pull the tablecloth off. When I finally managed to get it off my face, I blinked a few times. Stars. The sky was full of stars. I heard bugs buzzing. Crickets. Frogs.
“Annie?” I said. I wanted to know if she was all right. She was still sobbing, still clutching my neck with one hand and the weather radio with the other. I tried to sit up. The trailer was there, a dim, grey shape in the starlight, its open door a black hole into nothingness.
“Daddy?” she choked out, “Where did it go? Is it coming back?”
I didn’t answer. What could I say? I didn’t know what was going on. If it was just Annie or just me, I would have said it was a dream. But it was the both of us. “Spotter statement,” said the radio, “Spotter activation is not anticipated at this time.”
Then a flash of light hit us. Annie gave another shriek. This light didn’t come and go like lightning. It stayed on us, blinding us. I started scrabbling away from it, pushing Annie behind me, trying to shield my eyes. A voice called out. “Hey! What’s going on?”
My head was so squirrely by now that the real, human voice only scared me more. Through my fingers I could see a figure coming from the light. He walked toward us with one hand resting on his hip. A kind of “click” went off in my mind and I saw that the light was headlights. The figure was a policeman, slowly approaching us with his hand on his pistol.
“Wh–what?” I stammered. “What is it?”
“You tell me!” he said. “Somebody here called 9-1-1.”
I damn near lost her.
I know I would have if they had brought in any of them counselors and social workers like they threatened to do. And yet, I can’t really blame the deputy for thinking about doing it, because look what he walked up on. He couldn’t very well come to a call and find a man and a little girl rolling around in the driveway in the middle of the night jabbering like monkeys and just say, “Well, if you say everything’s fine, then good night.” He figured right off I was on dope or something.
Then it got crazy, because when they get a 9-1-1 and don’t know why, they send everybody. Fire truck and ambulance and all. Even as shook up as I was, I realized I had to come up with something. Forget about what really happened or didn’t happen and what it meant or didn’t mean. I just had to come up with something to tell these people. My wife’s family would jump at the chance to get Annie away from me. This was bad.
Well, I ain’t proud of it, but I put it all on Annie. What else could I do? I told them about the trailer house that used to be there, and said that Annie was so scared by the stories that she kind of went a little loony about it. All her friends knew she talked about it all the time, so they could check up on that. I told them that Annie had a nightmare about a tornado, called 9-1-1 and tried to run away. I was catching her and bringing her back when the deputy arrived. Annie was telling them what happened, too, and it sure sounded like she was describing a nightmare.
While I told it to them, a strange thing happened. My lie somehow started seeming true. What I was telling at least kind of made sense, while what I remembered made none at all. It must have really been a nightmare. What else could it be? Something must have gone wrong the weather radio, and it kind of scared us into dreaming something. Or something. Hell, I’m no psychological expert. Don’t ask me.
It came down to Annie, finally. The deputy and one of the EMT’s, a lady, hunkered down in front of her. The lady said, “Annie, why did you call 9-1-1? Tell me the real reason. It’s OK.”
I had no way of knowing if Annie understood what was at stake. It would be bad if she told the truth. But if she thought she ought to lie, that would be even worse, because she was a bad liar. I looked down at the dirt because I was afraid she would look at me for a hint, and that would be bad, too.
She didn’t look at me for a hint. She just took a raggedy breath and said, “I don’t know. I don’t remember doing it. I’m sorry.” And that was the perfect answer. The cop just patted her shoulder and said, “That’s all right, sweetheart. Don’t worry about it.”
A half hour later, everybody was gone and me and Annie were sitting at the table. The weather radio was laying there in the middle of the table, and we kind of stared at it, but not really. It was just a place to stare. I knew I should say something, but I didn’t know what. Annie said something first.
“Daddy,” she said, and she sounded more serious than I ever heard her sound, “this is a bad place.”
Things darted all through my mind. How much money was in the bank. Mr. Rudolph and his job. How I didn’t, like I said before, have any options. I opened my mouth and my tongue was stuck to the roof of it. I wondered if there was a beer left in the icebox. When I finally started talking, my voice sounded like crackling paper.
“Get your stuff all together, Annie. Your clothes and school books. We’re getting the hell out of here.”
We didn’t have any options, but staying at 2915 Promise Land Road was one of the options we also didn’t have. Because I could talk to myself about dreams and scary stories all I wanted to, but none of that changed one fact.
We didn’t have no telephone.
Ken Teutsch is a writer, videographer and performer living in northern Arkansas.
© 2011, Ken Teutsch