At the head of the basement stairs Father always kept one of those emergency flashlights plugged in. Just as he was saying, “Vickie, get the flashlight,” I groped for it and switched it on. I handed it to him.
“Careful now,” he said. “Stay right where you are. Let me get to the bottom—then I’ll shine the light on the stairs for you.”
Our basement stairs are very steep—but I knew them well. I’d been up and down them countless times. The shaky beam of light on the stairs told us that Father was ready—and he called to us. “Okay, girls, take it very slowly.” Harriet gripped my upper arm tightly.
We could still hear the wind howling outside. At first it had sounded like a high-pitched moan. Then it was more like a scream. Now we heard what could have been heavy machinery—a truck, a bulldozer, maybe even a train.
As we reached the floor, Father pointed the light toward the far end. “We’ll go down there,” he said, “and kneel against the wall.”
“Just like at school,” said Harriet, “during those stupid tornado drills.” Her voice sounded tiny and hollow.
No one took those drills seriously—no one really believed that Franconia was important enough to be visited by a tornado. But one was visiting now. And it was apparently knocking on doors all up and down the street.
“Why don’t we go in there, Father?” I asked, pointing toward the locked room—the one I’d never been in.
“No!” he said sharply. “There’s a window,” he explained. “Flying glass.” I looked at Father. He’d just lied to me. I’d played around the outside of our house for years; I knew there was no basement window on that side. Why is he lying? I wondered.
When we reached the wall and knelt down in front of it, Father said, “I’m going to turn the flashlight off. It’ll save the battery—in case we need it later. But if you want me to turn it on at any time, just say so.”
And then we were in absolute darkness while the wind roared above us. I touched the cool basement wall. It was shaking. I could hear a cracking sound. The stones of the foundation were moving.
No one spoke, down there in the blackness. Not for what seemed like a long while. And then I heard Harriet whisper, “Vickie? Are you scared?”
“Yes. Are you?”
“So am I,” said Father. “But we’re in the safest place we could be.”
I thought about that while the wind roared on.
And then—Is it my imagination?—it seemed quieter. I waited. Then I was sure. It was quieter. There was no question.
“Yes, I think it’s passed over,” he said. “But let’s wait just a while longer before we go up.”
Beside me I could hear Harriet whimpering softly. And gradually the wind died. Soon, all we could hear was the pounding sound of the rain.
“I think we can go up now,” Father said. “But let’s be careful.” He switched on the flashlight.
He let Harriet and me go ahead while he lit our path, all the way to the top of the basement stairs. “Watch out,” I warned. “There’s jagged glass sticking right through the door.” I remembered.
Gently, I released the latch and pushed open the door. In the gray light of the stormy afternoon Harriet and I were the first to see what the tornado had done to our house. In the parlor, where the basement stairs were, I felt rain on my head. I looked up and saw the sky—right where the ceiling used to be.
“Oh, Father,” I groaned.
“We’re alive,” he said softly. “We’re alive.”
And that—considering the damage I was seeing—was incredible. Parts of walls were standing, some furniture remained. But much was gone. The second floor, the attic—gone. Tables, chairs, couches—gone. Our books—gone. The tornado, like a vacuum cleaner, had sucked everything into the sky and dropped it… who knows where?
We stumbled outside … But even the word outside did not have the same meaning. Open to the sky and the weather, our house—what was left of it—was just about all outside.
So I should say that we stumbled into the front yard, which was littered with debris from our house. I saw the glint of something metallic. A picture frame. I bent over and picked it up. It was the wedding picture of my parents.
“Harriet!” a voice screamed. And we saw her mother running toward us. “You’re okay! You’re not hurt!” And Mrs. Eastbrook swept Harriet up in her arms, hugging her so tightly she could not have answered—it was probably difficult enough for her to breathe. Everyone was crying and shouting all at once.
Mrs. Eastbrook put her down, and with tears in her eyes, spoke to my father. “Oh, thank you,” she cried, “thank you for saving my child.” Over and over and over again she thanked him. And hugged him.
I looked up and down the street in shock.
“Father,” I said.
He glanced over at me.
“The neighborhood … look at it.”
And for the first time he did.
No other house had been damaged. They all stood there, untouched, while ours was a near total wreck. I turned to look the other direction and saw our parlor couch perched on Harriet’s roof. One of the pillows was still on it.