Wes Holtermann

2013 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest Runner-up

Before the hurricane, we shook. We went to work and walked dogs, minded our own business basically, and shook like leaves. I thought about what I would do when it came, when the sky broke and let the weather tear us open. I’d get in my car and drive like hell, is what. I’d get on 40 with my Bruce Springsteen tape and drive straight to Christ.

Instead, though, I just hunkered over the TV with everyone else, watching the digitally simulated hurricane pinwheel toward the coast. As it neared, everyone clustered at the string of churches and prayed. I’m not sure any of us really knew what to say, but there we were, on our knees, whispering like lunatics. Priests echoed, and choirs rang through the rafters. The voices could have toppled the churches to their lawns. We stared up at rose windows and clasped our hands, but at a certain point, you start just praying for the storm to come already.

When the winds started, the city sighed. We were in danger, I guess, but we just boarded up our windows and thought, Finally.

I was with Jesse when the rain came. The wind had been hurling things all morning, ripping mailboxes out of front lawns and throwing them into windshields, sending screen doors knifing into the sides of houses. It felt calm in Jesse’s living room, with his soft eyes and his flannel shirt, but it sure wasn’t how I wanted to die, naked like that on his couch, going down on him, while Nascar hummed like a beehive from the TV.

By morning, we were in about two feet of water. A slew of crickets had cropped up on the furniture. There were a couple water snakes lashing around the hallway, and I clutched Jesse like he was a low-hanging limb in the flood. He said, “Pay no heed, Lucy. It’s the cottonmouth snakes that’ll put the hurt on you, and they’ve all drowned.”

We’d had four years of bad omens. Thousands of red-winged blackbirds near Little Rock falling dead from the sky. That was the first thing, just piling in the streets. The second was the fish, around eighty thousand, floating like big bloated sequins in the shallows of the Arkansas River. Now there were crickets fizzing like ginger ale on the tabletops and snakes gliding around the bed. That was when I got the feeling He was setting the plagues on us.

Months earlier, right after the fish, the buzzed guys at the junkyard (one skinny, one fat) had painted a sign that said god is punishing us and hung it round the neck of a wood sculpture of King Kong, on whose forehead “Obama” had been written in whiteout. Needless to say, I forgot about buying a new crankshaft and got the fuck out of there, but it was hard not to get the feeling we’d probably displeased Somebody with one thing or another. Whether or not the Knights Templar of white power had nailed down the sin was questionable, but they were certainly ready, stacked with automatics and supplies in their piles of parts.

Driving wasn’t great, but we tried it, a creeping slosh through the wrack of houses and downed telephone lines. We got around pretty well once we made it to Mercy Hill, until the felled oak trees up there boxed us in. The news was coming in sloppily on the radio, and Jesse and I parked above everything and watched. The town was glossy brown and quiet. The sky was blue. Helicopters beat their way toward the private hospital and hung there. Many people were out in their waders just beholding it.

We’d brought peanuts and Jell-O and three gallons of potable water in the trunk. Some of the Mercy Hill people whose roofs had been destroyed were trickling out to find shelter and supplies. The next hill over, Scotts, was the rich part of town, so they all figured the helicopters would find them there one way or another. Sure enough, within four hours, we could see them being plucked from on high a few at a time, dangling from the rope ladder like icicle Christmas lights.

Jesse and I slept in the car, wrapped like candy in the foil blanket from the emergency box. In the morning, we walked around the neighborhood, siphoning gas from abandoned cars, and then drove north toward drier land.

We didn’t move for just about the whole morning, the traffic was so bad. People were sitting on top of their cars, stretched out, sunbathing on the hoods. Everything was suspended in six inches of gray water, bits of things floating everywhere like freckles in a funhouse mirror. Every ten minutes or so there’d be movement, and we’d all crawl back in and pull forward.

“Where are we going?” Jesse said. It was the first time either of us had asked.

I shrugged. “Hollywood?”

When Jesse laughed, it came out in big dumb wallops from his throat. “No way, sister.” That’s what he said. No way, sister.

Some high school kids a few cars up were playing a rap-rock band with the doors open, sitting on the tailgate with a twenty-four pack. I looked at the landscape. All browns.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Somewhere nice until Arkansas drains.”

“Roswell.” He looked at me, grinning. Then he did the Star Trek thing with his hands and whispered, “Aliens.”

I pulled my T-shirt collar to my forehead and stayed in there for a while.

It was about one when the highway loosened. Once we got up toward the Ozarks, nothing could be seen of a storm. We kept driving. There was nowhere to stop, and we were looking for a sign. We went through Oklahoma and Texas, past nailed praying hands painted on the sides of worn-out trailers, saying jesus died for your sins or abortion is genocide. There was a billboard of two men holding hands. Written below was not in my america. Our transgressions, as a country, were being spelled out in front of us, bullet points along the roads. We finally stopped somewhere outside Amarillo to sleep, just pulled off the highway and put the seats down.

The only radio stations out here were the Christian ones, and it was our choice between watered-down genres. We picked Christian rock, because the guy singing was doing a dead-on Eddie Vedder, just nailing it. He was yarling something about the Good News and the Light, and I was trying to get into it, knocking back handfuls of peanuts.

Jesse fell asleep in my lap, mouth open and steaming my thigh. The guy was an oaf. There was no other way to put it, and whatever biblical thing was happening around us could not have been aimed at me, blanketed as I was under something so undramatic. There was no possibility I was part of the story, because there was no chance Jesse was. We weren’t Bible material. Our car was pointed toward a town famous for its flocks of psychos looking for UFOs through night goggles. We didn’t make the cut.

Driving through New Mexico, the highway was straight and flat through swaths of dead grass. Semis careened by to our left, and I found myself pushing a hundred in the flow of traffic. These people driving here were maniacs. We were just keeping pace.

Jesse spotted it first, like a yellow wave up ahead, like a dam had broken and set something loose. We didn’t know what it was until we were in it, a crush of yellow all around us, but we couldn’t slow down, because we’d get smashed from the back. We couldn’t see the cars behind us or the turnout to the side. “Butterflies!” Jesse said, and it was true, a deluge of them pouring against our windshield, wings flitting and breaking apart with the speed. I held my breath as if they could get in my mouth. Jesse closed his eyes. Thousands were barreling into us, and I turned on the wipers and smeared them across the windshield. Within ten seconds they were gone. We burst into the open, only slightly out of our lane, and I exhaled, a cloud of them hurling across the plains.

When we pulled over to pick about a million off the windshield, some were still alive, fluttering, and I euthanized them with the round end of the pressure gage. They piled up, their little bodies like paper at our feet.

God tells you things. I’m convinced that’s how it works, if it works at all. He’ll be there the whole time without you knowing it, sending you these signs. Whether or not you take them is a matter of faith. Or anyway superstition.

I was in no position to be absolved. Sure, there were small things, but the warning in a rain of dead birds or the cleansing metaphor of a flood hardly fit whatever sins I’d committed. Forgotten birthdays, phone calls left unreturned. There was the time I set out a rat trap. I couldn’t kill the rat once it got stuck, even after it had broken all its limbs trying to free itself. Still, my signs from God were less heavy-handed. It was sunburns and a string of houseplant deaths that descended upon me. This was what I believed.

Jesse left me at the Super 8 Motel in Roswell. I made him. We’d seen the UFO stuff and the dead alien in the glass case, and when we got back to the room we’d rented, to grab our bags, I told him I wasn’t going, that I didn’t want to move. It was all too much, everything being flung in our direction, symbolic or no, and he’d paled right there in front of me. He turned to me with this dumb look and said, “I don’t understand,” and I said back that I was sorry but this was how I felt. I didn’t tell him that I felt I was destined for greater things, that the day before I’d looked at him and thought, This is good. This is what I want. This big cute dumb idiot. To be unexceptional and safe from all this. I was a million dead butterflies away from a breakthrough.

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