Something big is coming.
I don’t know what it is, but I can feel it in my bones … in every breath I take.
We’re standing in Fort Washington Park, looking out at the George Washington Bride. The wind blows fiercely, slapping our hair against our cheeks, pushing us sideways. My little sister, Flori, stands between Meena and my, grabbing out hands. Heavy particles invade my nose and mouth. Pollen, dirt, and dust fill my throat. Settle in my lungs. Plugging me up. Sealing my airways. My head swirls — it’s the light-headedness that comes with too little air. I wobble, grabbing Meena’s arm for balance. She wraps her arm around my wait.
“You should get back in the car!” she yells over the howling wind. “I don’t know why I let you convince me to pull over.”
The trees sway wildly, their branches reaching toward the ground and then up toward the sky as if performing an exotic ritual. Wind lifts debris off the ground, and from afar I suspect it might look beautiful, like celebratory confetti. But there’s no beauty in trash – wrinkled pages of the New York Times, old plastic bags, and cigarette stumps – flying by your face.
“Oh, find,” I mumble. Just speaking is an effort. The sky rumbles so loudly that the ground shakes beneath our feet, and I wonder if maybe this is the end of the world. The sky lights up violently as a three pronged fork of lightning splits the air.
“Holy –” Meena can’t even finish her sentence. We race back to the car, throw the doors open against the wind, and climb in. The wind slams them closed. Flori barely finishes buckling herself into her booster when the sky rumbles ferociously again, like a lion about to make us its dinner.
“Drive!” I scream.
We tear out of the park and loop around the highway leading to the bridge. My adrenaline pumps, and my gut tells me to move quickly. But the traffic is slow, dense. We’re going nowhere fast. The cars ahead of us crawl, until we’re practically stalled. I want to scream. Haven’t the other drivers seen the sky? Don’t they know we need to move? I imagine that from above, all of these cars must look like a caravan of ants carrying food to their queen. Scraps of paper fly by our car. A soda can bounces off our hood. It’s the wind warning us: Don’t get too comfortable, ants, I can blow you away.
This weather is weird … wild.
I grip the side of my seat as we inch onto the top level of the bridge. The whole George Washington Bridge – all fourteen lanes and two stories – seems to sway in the wind, like we’re teetering on a tightwire. I look down at the Hudson River and wonder if any of us would be able to escape if the car were to blow over the railing.
I close my eyes, trying to push the image of our car plummeting out of my head. My seven-year-old sister is the only one with the swimming skills to survive that kind of an accident. She can hold her breath for almost six minutes under water. No one else I know can do that. But to even think that one of us could escape is insane. The car would explode or flatten like a pancake.
A thunderous boom shakes the bridge. A Z-shaped bolt of lightning shoots through the dark sky and lands in the water. Meena looks over at me with wide eyes. Her knuckles are white.
“Lilah!” Meena slams the steering wheel with her palm. “That yellow car ahead of us actually just jumped in the wind. Jumped!”
Our car shudders as wind howls through our roof rack. I glance at my sister clutching her doll, gnawing on its stuffed hand.
“It didn’t jump, Meena,” I wheeze. “It swayed.” I pause and try to catch my breath. I took my pills this morning. I used my inhaler three times already. Useless … they are all useless today. ‘We’re stuck here. There’s nothing we can do ... There’s no reason to scare anybody.” I glance pointedly at Flori and cough. “This is an army-grade car … It’s designed … to handle … far worse … than a little pre-storm … wind.”
I Hope I’m right.
Meena swallows hard and nods. She doesn’t want to be driving. But I can’t do it, and she knows that. She’s here to play chauffeur to an invalid. Me.
My father’s words spin in my brain. “Go to the cottage. Get Flori and get out of the city. Right away, Lilah. I’m taking the next flight home. I’ll join you as soon as I can. Can Meena go with you?”
The call itself wasn’t unusual. I have crappy lungs, not a-little-wheeze-here-or-there crappy, but full-blown-we’ll-take-you-down-if-you’re-not-paying-attention crappy. Breathing seems like the kind of thing that should be so natural you don’t even have to think about it. Not me. I think about it all the time. My breathing is way worse before big storms – the humidity takes me down – so we spend a lot of time at our cottage in the mountains, away from the city where the air hangs too heavy and presses down. I love the cottage. It’s peaceful, and just scrunching my toes into the warm beach sand can erase whatever’s stressing me out.
But today’s call was different. Even sitting in Starbucks with Meena, waiting for Jesse, wondering if he’d actually show – the music blaring, the barista flirting with the group of mal models who’d stopped in for a drink – I could tell something was wrong. There was an urgency in my dad’s voice I’d never heard before. And he never lets me bring friends to the cottage, not even Meena, my best friend. Never.
“The sky looks funny.” Flori points to the rear window. “It’s orange over the city and it’s not even sunset!”
“Must be the window tinting, Fish,” I say from the front passenger seat, but when I turn back to look, I see oddly shaped orange and black clouds looming over Washington Height, bathing the buildings in a hazy, unearthly glow. That can’t be good.
“You are so driving next time, Lilah,” Meena whimpers. Lightning crosses the sky. Our car rocks from side to side – not a lot, but just enough to scare the crap out of me. We’re halfway over the bridge. Flori makes a small sound – a gasp, maybe? A blue Prius ahead of us puts on its flashers and pulls over. Meena looks at me as if to say, That looks like a good idea. I shake my head. We can’t stop. Being stuck in the middle of a bridge – this bridge – in this weather seems about the worst place to be.
I lean down for my phone. I want to check the weather again. It’s like there’s an elephant hanging on my back. When I sit back up, I’m so dizzy the car spins, and I need to hold the door handle to keep from falling over. I blink hard, popping open a browser. It won’t load. It makes no sense. There should be no problem getting a signal this close to the city. What is going on? I sigh, and my whole body trembles as air drags into my lungs in loud spurts. Meena glances over and raises her eyebrows.
“I’m okay,” I cough.
I look down at my phone again. It’s been five minutes. Still nothing. A red square slowly appears on my browser. I see it: a big red ALERT. I click it, but nothing happens.
I lean over to turn on the radio.
“Maybe the news will help,” I grumble.
The speakers crackle for a minute. Nothing. I try again, but there’s just a loud pop. “Crap,” I sigh.
“I think it’s broken,” Flori says, staring out the window. “Remember, the radio didn’t work last time when Tilly drove either, and we were supposed to tell Daddy.” She pauses. “I wish we’d remembered.”
So do I.
I look out at the dark grey sky. A Snickers wrapper flies at my window, sticks for a second, and then flutters away. A flash illuminates the clouds.
This is the first time we’ve ever driven up to our cottage without our dad or our nanny, Tilly. I wish she were here.
A loud screech fills the car.
“What was that?” Meena’s voice is thin.
We’re almost at the second archway. I look out, trying to find the source of the sound. I see it. I gasp. A huge metal bar dangles from above just ahead of us, threatening the cars below. Horns blast around us, but we’re all stuck. Crammed together on this bridge with no room to move. The car teeters in the wind, screeching and squeaking, rushing toward our car, then away from it. I wince, calculating our odds. We’re driving two mils and hour. If it breaks free … we’re toast.
“Nori’s scared,” Flori whimpers. Only my sister would name her doll after the Japanese word for seaweed.
“Tell Nori everything is going to be okay,” I wheeze.
“Lilah,” Flori’s voice trembles. “Over there, the sky looks green.”
It’s true. The sky ahead of us is an eerie dark yellow-ish green, and orange streaks highlight clouds that look like upside-down globs of whipped cream.
A car beside us tries to swerve away. It hits the guardrail, bounces off, and hits a car next to it. I suck in my breath.
I glance back toward the city. The clouds are tightly packed ripples pushed together like a child’s drawing of the ocean. North of the city there’s a mass of dense clouds, almost black. Someone tell this kid to draw us some sunshine and give us back our blue skies. He must have gotten his crayons mixed up because the sky isn’t supposed to be so many colors at once.
The cables on either side of the bridge ripple. They’re solid steel. They can’t ripple. They do, though. Back and forth and back and forth.
I gnaw my knuckles. I don’t know what to do. My father, the award-winning environmental scientist and New York Times bestselling author, would know what to do –wherever he is. I do not.
Traffic begins to move – finally, but slowly. Car horns blast again. A green SUV lurches from our lane, trying to move left. It hit’s a car’s bumper, but neither driver seems to care. What’s a bumper when you’re about to die? Cars are ramming into each other and us like we’re bumper cars at an amusement park. We inch along, painfully slowly. The bar dangles precariously, threatening to slice into our roof like a dagger. We’re not safe. Even if we pass it, in this wind, that bar could get us from either side.
I look down. The screen on my phone has partially loaded, and I only see one word: tornado.
I sit bold upright, alert. My whole body stiffens. Tornado?! How could my father not have known? It’s his job to study weather. He called Meena’s parents. He assured them it would be safe for us to drive up in a storm alone. He hates guests up there. What if …
No. This is my dad. He would never lie about this stuff. He would never knowingly put us in danger. I try to push the thought away, but it’s hard to let go. My father studies the weather. That’s his job.
I keep reading. A tornado watch is in effect for the metro New York area …
“Just keep driving,” I wheeze, “and don’t look back.”
Excerpted from The Stellow Project by Shari Becker. Copyright 2015. Published by Skyscape. Used by permission of the publisher. Not for reprint without permission.