I took Hope to bed with me for that night. Linny stayed with James. I knew we should be comforting one another in this, I knew from the beginning of the nightmare we should have been.
When the sirens went off that cool summer evening we thought it was a tornado. The skies were overcast and all was still except for some distant rumbling; but that is how tornados work. They drop like bombs, spin three minutes of wanton destruction, and suck back up into the belly of the sky.
I recalled grabbing Ellen and the twins, and shouting for Linny. But she was ahead of me, dragging Sarah and Evan across the backyard toward the bunker. She had the photo album tucked beneath one arm. She always grabbed the photo album.
I grabbed my phone. I sent a text, Tornado, love you, as I ran to pick up the boys. It never sent. The towers were already blocked, or down. We were supposed to meet within the hour, and it was my explanation for the inevitability of standing her up.
Hope sighed and twisted in my embrace. Her hair, finally dry again, tickled my lips and nose. She smelled warm, like I remembered healthy soil smelling. Clean and organic. “Papa?” She whispered.
“I’m here, baby girl. Right here. It was just a bad dream.”
“Yes. Papa’s here. You’re safe.”
“Is he gone?” she said, clear as day.
My heart froze in my chest at the sound of her voice, at the clear enunciation, hardly the speech of a child muted by fear. I pushed her back to look in her face, her head resting on Linny’s pillow. “You can speak,” I whispered.
She stared at me. There were spots of color on her cheeks that showed even in the dimness.
“Who did you see?”
My blood ran cold. Was someone here? In the house?
“There’s no man here, honey.” I willed it to be true.
“The dead man, Papa.”
“I don’t understand.”
She moved back into my embrace and sighed.
After her breath told me she was sleeping, I slid carefully from the bed. I picked up the revolver from the table by the bed and walked carefully into the hall. I let my eyes adjust; dawn wasn’t far now. I moved down the hall and checked the bedroom where the rest of my family now slept.
The house was clear. Peaceful, even. My pulse gradually returned to normal, calmed by the weight of the pistol in my hand and the sounds of children sleeping… I sank to the floor in the hall, my back against the wall of the room where my Hope slept. I could feel her. I could see the stairs.
I waited for dawn with the revolver on my knee.