Heat lightning sparked across the dry fields and Aunt Jeanette knew more about it than she was letting on. She stood at the screen door, watching the clouds lower. When the first rumbles of thunder started, she gripped the latch as if she meant to step out. Rita’s mother moved away from the stove and put her hands on Jeanette's shoulders.
“Come back in now. You’ll let the flies in.”
Jeanette nodded but didn’t move. Her eyes stayed locked on the grumbling sky.
“What is it now?” Mama asked. “Tell me what’s happened, Jeanie.”
Rita suspected it had something to do with the kitten they’d found stiff and cold against its littermates that morning. Thunder always followed a death on their farm. It was Aunt Jeanette’s way.
Mama succeeded in leading Jeanette to the rocker in the front room, right next to the window: their compromise. Jeanette rocked and watched the sky, occasionally murmuring under her breath as she counted the seconds between a flash and a boom.
Rita took her aunt’s place in the doorway. Across the flat brown fields, she thought she saw her father’s tractor, small as a frightened pill bug. It wasn’t safe for him to stay out with all that lightning. He’d have to come in soon and lose an hour’s work. Rita could hear Mama clattering in the kitchen, hurrying dinner ahead of his arrival.
The clouds had started hurrying too, scuttling like fat spiders. The breeze picked up and drove them on. There was no pretending they weren’t headed for the house. Rita could pick out individual tongues of lightning now, silver and forked. If one of them reached down far enough, it would set the house alight or burn the fields bare. But danger aside, Rita had to admit it was some of her aunt’s prettiest work.
The wind had started kicking up dust furls too. They rose like the broken brown columns of a ruin—nothing pretty about them. A hot breeze hit Rita’s ankles and scored them with grit. Pa would have to hurry.
“Rita.” Mama’s broad hand shut the front door. “Fetch your sister. Ask her to set the table for me.”
Rita nodded. She’d rather not face Mae when the winds were like this, but she’d get nowhere arguing with Mama. She never did.
She scampered up the ladder to the broad room under the eaves that she shared with Mae. The curtain that divided the two halves sighed in the breeze. Pushing past it, Rita found Mae lying face up on her made bed, letting the wind rush over her as if she didn’t have a hand in it. Tabby, their gray cat, lay curled at Mae’s feet. The cat daintily licked its paws, looking more serene about its dead offspring than half the people in the house. Stupid thing didn’t know the trouble it had caused. Rita shooed it away and took its spot at the end of Mae’s bed.
It was strange how calm Mae looked in the grip of it. If it weren’t for the wind outside, Rita might have thought she was asleep. The only sign of trouble was a deep crease between her brows, as if she were stirring out of a bad dream. Rita wondered if the affliction hurt or if she’d grown used to it as Rita had grown used to the huffy wind, Jeanette’s crackling clouds, and sometimes a blistering heat wave from one or both, though never a drop of rain.
It was a shame too because rain was the only thing their part of the country needed. If it fell now, every farmer in Oklahoma would weep for joy, the crops would come in and the roaming dust walls would finally settle. Maybe the next McGee woman—
Rita stopped the wicked thought before she could complete it. She hoped God hadn’t heard, but the clenching in her guts told her He must have. She didn’t mean she wanted there to be a next. Lord, no.
She thought about it constantly—waking up someday with the family affliction. Aunt Jeanette’s had come on when she was fifteen, Mae’s at sixteen. That meant Rita had a year or two left to wait and see. Not every McGee woman had it. Mama was perfectly normal, and she’d always sworn Rita took after her. But still, when Rita imagined the future, she felt like something was waiting to grab her by the side of a long dark road.
“Mae,” she said, bouncing a little on the mattress. Mae’s eyes flicked open. “You all right?”
“Fine, I guess.”
“Are you still sad about the kitten?”
“A little. You?”
Rita shrugged. She’d been the first one that morning to notice one of curled little bodies wasn’t wiggling like the others—the black kitten with the white star on its nose, the last born. Mama had tried to wrap it up quick before Mae or Jeanette noticed, but Rita still saw. Mama had told her it was for the best. It had been runty and weak; Lord knew they didn’t need another mouth to feed.
“It was just a cat,” Rita said, echoing Mama’s words. There were already enough people mourning for it without Rita adding to the mess. “Mama wants you to set the table.”
Mae nodded. She pulled herself out of bed one leg at a time like a lazy marionette and climbed down the ladder. The wind was making noise now, a low whistling as it arced around the house. Rita moved to the window and slammed it shut. She couldn’t see the fields from this side of the house, but she hoped Pa was coming in ahead of the storm. The dust was more dangerous than any thundercloud.
Of the two, Mae’s powers scared Rita the most. With Jeanette’s, at least, they knew what had brought it on—something to do with the Robertson boy behind the barn. Mama said Jeanette had come back that day bloody and torn. Her clear blue eyes hardened into a storm cloud gray that hadn’t changed since. But Mae’s affliction had crept up on her, and it was still coming. Sometimes her eyes were clear, like an October sky. But more and more, they were going gray and staying that way for longer before they switched back. They could flash and change in an instant with scarcely any warning.
The more time went by, the stronger Mae’s winds grew. On the last bad day, she’d ripped half the shingles off the barn roof. Rita wouldn’t be surprised if she surpassed Jeanette soon, though Jeanette had done damage enough in her time. A split trunk in their yard, struck years ago, still stood gnarled and black as a petrified warning. Folks said the Robertson boy had been standing right under it when it happened.
The screen door slammed downstairs. Rita hurried down the ladder as Pa stomped inside, beating dust out of every wrinkle in his clothes.
“Take those boots off,” Mama chided him. “Leave them on the porch, for goodness’ sake. I just swept this floor. Rita, carry the peas to the table.”
Pa clomped back outside while Rita hurried towards the stove. The table was half-set. Mae had drifted over to stand behind Jeanette’s chair and watch the clouds tumble across the sky. Rita’s mother finished spreading the plates around.
“Faster with those peas now, Rita. There’s no need to make a show of it,” she called over her shoulder. “Set the butter out when you’re done.”
Pa walked in again in his sock-feet. Mae and Jeanette wandered to their seats. For a while, the only sounds were scraping forks and the tick-tick of dust hitting the side of the house.
Pa cleared his throat. “I saw John Ames today when I was in town.”
“How’s that wife of his?” Mama asked.
“I didn’t ask.”
“I’m sure she’ll ask after us. She’s the worst gossip I ever met. Saves her having any thoughts of her own.”
Pa sighed but had the good sense not to answer. They’d heard Mama’s gripes about the neighbors so many times, Rita could rattle them off faster than the Lord’s Prayer. In truth, Rita pitied anyone living near her family. Mae and Jeanette’s storms spilled across property lines, sometimes covering the whole county. Twice, the Ames’ barn lost its roof to a lightning strike.
But there wasn’t a single one of the neighbors that Mama trusted for more than borrowing a cup of sugar. She lived in fear of prying eyes and tattling tongues. Susan Ames had a particular black mark against her for once saying at a church social that Aunt Jeanette was “odd.”
Thunder growled outside, close enough to make the table shudder.
“John asked me to buy his seeder,” Pa continued once it passed.
“Won’t he be needing that come spring?”
“Turns out he’s moving West. He and Susan are talking about California.”
“California!” Rita exclaimed. She’d done a project in school the year before on Californian ecosystems. Her teacher had deemed it the best in the class. “Are they going to live by the ocean?”
Another roll of thunder made the silverware chatter against the plates.
“Let’s talk about this later,” Mama said with the thin-eyed look that said Pa had gotten himself in trouble. Rita opened her mouth to ask why but her mother spoke first. “Pass the peas to your sister.”
When later came, Rita was crouched on the floor of the pantry. It wasn’t her favorite place to sit. The dust crept through the cracks in the wall and itched under her clothes. But it was more private and peaceful than her room with Mae, especially on a stormy night like this. She’d borrowed one of the lanterns from the barn and curled over a book spread across her lap.
It was The Encyclopedia of American Flora and Fauna. Rita loved it for the name alone. If she ever reinvented herself, she’d call herself Flora. The book had been an end-of-year present from her teacher Miss Hutton. She’d said that Rita would “go far in life” if she kept up her studies, and Rita had decided to live by those words.
She slipped her fingers between the pages and let the book flop to its well-worn center. She liked this page best of all—the only full-page illustration in the book. Blue water filled three-quarters of the paper below a strip of whitish sky. The water teemed with bright fish and swirling seaweed. Something that looked like a gopher floated on its back on the surface, but Rita knew its proper name was a sea otter.
She went around the page naming every creature she saw. Stingray. Queen fish. Eel. She’d have them all memorized by the time school started again. She named over half before she got stuck on something brown and dull-looking. It was the color of dried corn husks and had no place in that much blue. She knew it was a Something Fish. King fish? Where there was a queen…
“We need to talk about California.” The sound of her father’s voice outside the pantry startled her. She’d thought he was sitting out on the porch while her mother washed up, but he must have come back into the kitchen.
“I don’t see why. We’ve been over this a hundred times,” Mama replied.
“Things are getting worse out here. Pretty soon, we’ll be the only ones left.”
Mama didn’t hold with eavesdropping. If she realized Rita was sitting in the pantry, she’d drag her out by the ear. But Rita had already heard too much. If she opened the door now, she’d be in as much trouble as if she stayed and kept listening. And she wanted to hear what Pa had to say.
“The land out there is better. It isn’t cheap, but I could get a job on someone else’s farm for a while and save up.”
“You know we can’t,” Mama sighed. “Think of the trouble it causes when we find a dead cat. Can you imagine moving across the country?”
Moving! Pa meant to move them all to California? A vision of redwood trees and mountaintops leapt into Rita’s mind. She hugged the cover of her book to her chest and edged closer to the door so she wouldn’t miss a word.
“It could help them,” Pa said. “A change of air and climate. You never know.”
“I know my sister and I know Mae. Change would be a disaster.”
“They might just have to get used to it. We’re not going to make enough this season to pay off the tractor. I’d mortgage the house, but it isn’t worth a thing.”
“At least it’s still standing. Mae’ll blow it to the ground if we so much as mention a move. Is that what you want?”
“I want what’s best for all of us.”
“We’ll be fine.”
“We won’t, June. I need to go.”
Rita’s chest cinched. She didn’t like the way her father’s tone shifted on the “I” as if he was trying to say everything and nothing with one letter.
“I’d send money back—” he continued.
“Don’t you dare,” Mama interrupted. “How do you expect me to manage on my own?”
“You’ve got Rita.”
“I’m not putting all that on Rita. She’s too young. Besides, we don’t know how she’ll turn out.”
Rita’s stomach dropped. She didn’t catch her father’s reply. All she could hear was the too-loud thundering of blood in her ears and Mama’s words echoing over themselves. Turn out? What was that supposed to mean? Did she think that Rita could end up afflicted like Mae and Jeanette? Rita clutched the covers of her book so hard the corners bit into her skin.
On the other side of the door, her father’s chair scraped back and his footsteps thumped out of the room. Rita counted the seconds under her breath, like measuring the distance between thunder and lightning. It was silent for so long that Rita thought she must have missed Mama’s footsteps under his. But then another chair scraped the floor and Mama padded away to the bedroom.
Rita kept counting until the stinging left her eyes. Her mother had always said that Rita took after her. They were supposed to be the ones who managed things. Rita couldn’t… she wasn’t going to end up like Mae and Jeanette. She wouldn’t let it happen.
She laid the book down on her knees again and let it flop open to the middle. The ocean filled up the page. Rita tried to imagine standing on the edge of it. All that blue. The farthest, flattest fields couldn’t compare to it. She imagined seeing it, soaking it in, letting it settle in her. It would be easy to turn out right in a place like that.
The chance of them ever going was near zero with Mama deadset against it like that. But maybe Rita could have a word with Pa about it in the morning. Maybe she could talk him into taking her along.
Rita tucked her book under her arm, and padded across the dark kitchen. At the front door, she paused to look out at the parched fields. The dry stalks bobbed, tossing their heads like impatient horses. Rita felt some of their restless waiting spread through her chest. Tomorrow, she promised, she would talk to Pa about the move. Mae and Jeanette might not want to go but she wouldn’t miss her chance. Turning away, she scrambled up the ladder to the loft, and climbed into bed.
She woke sometime in the confused, wide-open hours between true dark and dawn. The room was gray. The curtain waved in a breath of wind. She was freezing, but when she curled her arms around her knees, they were damp with sweat. Her stomach was tight with worry. It was like a fist growing out of the base of her gut, clenching tighter and tighter. She whimpered into the pillow. Any tighter, and she wouldn’t be able to breathe. It eased a little but not enough and then it surged back. Getting stronger.
She tossed over onto her back. Dread seeped through her, settling heavy and urgent in her chest. It was like her body knew something she didn’t. Like it was trying to warn her.
She didn’t know if this was how it had started for her sister. She’d never asked. But what else could be wrong with her if it wasn’t the affliction? She kicked off her sweaty sheets and pushed out of bed. The fist twisted in her stomach, and she doubled over, gripping the footboard. She would push it down, block it out. She wouldn’t let it catch her. If she left now, maybe she could outrun it.
Her school bag was at the end of the bed where she’d dumped it on the first day of summer. She filled her with a clean nightdress, her new skirt, Miss Hutton’s book. She pulled on the pair of dungarees she kept for helping in the fields and a clean blouse, then piled sweaters on. She was so cold. Was this what her affliction would be? Would she freeze them all to death?
She felt her way towards the ladder. The breeze was growing stronger. It pushed the curtain aside and Rita saw a shape hunched over in the next bed.
“Rita?” Mae called. “Where are you going?”
“Nowhere.” Rita grimaced back another twist of pain. “Just out to the privy.”
“Nothing’s wrong, is it?” Mae moved to get up. She must have heard a catch of something in Rita’s voice that made her worry. The wind surged, making the curtains dance.
Rita couldn’t be around her any longer. The affliction, it could be catching. Why had no one thought about that before? Why had they kept Rita up there? Why hadn’t they taken her somewhere safe? “I’m fine,” she growled. “Leave me be.”
Her anger gave her something to hold on to as she lowered herself down the ladder. She would get somewhere safe all on her own.
She was panting from the effort of holding back the pain, sweating more than she ever had. All her body wanted to do was go back into bed and curl around its wounded self. She wouldn’t let it. Miss Hutton said the mind was the strongest weapon. Rita intended to fight. She stuffed the leftover pan of cornbread in her bag. The canteen Pa took out to the fields every day was next to the door, still full, and she slung it over her other shoulder.
Guilt sloshed in her chest at the thought of taking water when it was already so scarce but it was for the best. Pa’s words about doing right by the family echoed in her head. She wasn’t just keeping herself safe. She was sparing them all from another affliction.
The screen door creaked and threatened to betray her. She slipped past just before the breeze slammed it shut. Pausing on the porch, she peered at the dark windows. They made a good enough mirror to show her that she looked awful—half-wild and pale. But she couldn’t make out the color of her eyes. They just came back dark. Darker than usual? Gray? On the other side of the glass, a pale shape moved.
Rita turned and ran. She went through the gate, then the paddock. The wind was picking up and bringing fat thunderheads with it. The clouds blocked out what little light dawn might have brought but, for once in her life, she wasn’t scared of them. The darkness would shelter her. The wind was at her back. Her legs churned and her stomach churned with them.
At the edge of the first field, a strong gust took her by surprise and made her stumble. Her palms caught handfuls of pebbles and grit. She dusted them off, pushed herself up and looked back at the house. For a moment, she thought there was a pale form stepping onto the front porch, watching her. The clenching moved into her throat, and she coughed down a sob. She wouldn’t see any of this again.
It was for the best. She turned her face west again and took off, saltwater tears stinging her face. Thunder growled overhead, mournful and low. She felt like she was going to break open. This was it. Nothing could ever hurt this much.
The clouds gave one last warning shot and then the drops fell, heavy and fat. For the first time in her life, rain followed her family’s storms. Across the state, farmers would wake up and weep for joy. The crops would spring back. For a day at least, the dust would lie still. A miracle.
Rita stumbled to a stop. The churning in her stomach had eased a little. It didn’t feel like pain anymore but power. She breathed into it, let it pour through her limbs. The air was heady with the scent of hot rain, sweet as long-held desire. Tears still streamed down her face, but she couldn’t tell them apart from the water pouring from the sky. She bent and picked up a handful of earth, once dust, now speckled with rich dots of rain.
The wind gusted, tugging at her back. She turned around and saw Mae moving towards her across the fields, her features blurry through the curtain of rain. She seemed to open her mouth but Rita couldn’t hear what she said. The wind surged again and howled like a wild thing set free.
“Rita!” Mae called, just audible over the storm.
Rita’s hand trembled around the clump of dirt. The rain was getting stronger, sheets of it blown sideways like laundry on the line.
“Rita?” Mae’s voice, closer this time. She laid a hand on the sleeve of Rita’s soaked through shirt. “Come back in.”
Rita nodded and let her sister lead her back across the soaking fields.