by Leah Heim, Ball State University
And to think that we complained about that Fort Wayne tournament.
None of the parents went. Pendleton to Fort Wayne on a Thursday night? Give me a break. Parents had a hard time going to home matches. Overtime isn’t optional when the droughts last summer exploded food prices, or when the tornado last January ripped the shingles off your house, or when your kid has to have a suspicious mole hacked off. My parents could buy me a new tennis racket, and I was lucky: most girls used rackets their grandmas had kept in sheds to swat at carpenter bees, back in the day when bees had existed. Regripping a racket meant wrapping it with duct tape. Our school hadn’t gotten new tennis skorts since my mom played in the 2010s, and getting the skort with only one, discreet stitch in the crotch was the incentive to be number one singles.
God, imagine! We were all worried about tennis: about whether or not we’d make varsity, whether or not we’d finally whip those brats from Elwood High at county. But what else were we supposed to worry about? It had been our grandparents’ job to worry, and since they hadn’t, we didn’t have to, either; we just had to have a good time, make the best of it. And we were high-schoolers, after all. We couldn’t even vote to comfort ourselves with the delusion that we’d tried. At this point, the politicians could hardly even do that.
The truth is that the world was already over. We were just in free fall, waiting for the ground to hit.
Haley, our 40-something tennis coach, clung to this Fort Wayne tournament like it was life itself. Even now that it cost something to the effect of $300 to drive the mini-bus up north, she insisted on going. However, the mini-bus meant that only varsity could play, and you can bet that week before the tourney was nothing but JV singles and doubles challenging the varsity players to procure a spot.
The week before that last Fort Wayne tournament, my doubles partner Dani and I had beat out number two varsity doubles. We, sophomores, had kicked two juniors onto JV; they were better than us, but they’d had a bad day, so we’d thought we were hot shit.
Their names were Sarah Whitkamper and Kyleigh O’Malley. I still lose sleep over them.
That Fort Wayne tournament wasn’t anything spectacular: the same five coats of sunscreen, the same extra dark sunglasses, and Dani and I, who should have stayed home, got the whipping we deserved. What’s even better is that come 7 o’clock or so an Indiana megastorm moved in, and we had to start home because the tennis courts were getting pummeled with golf-ball hail.
I will never forget how wild that storm was. Haley stopped the bus onto I-69’s shoulder five times because of wind, and it was so dark that at 8 o’clock in April the only light came from the soft green glow of the dashboard, the occasional blast of lightning, and the blare of our hand-me-down iPhone 47’s. Listening to old T. Swift and peering out the window at the inky night pressing in, I felt like our mini-bus was a beam of light speeding through oblivion, like we were floating in the empty vacuum of the universe.
And then, amongst that huge brawl of lightning and thunder, I saw something like a supernova out the front windshield, a sheer plane of light that spread across the entire southern horizon. Lightning, unlike anything I’d ever witnessed. I couldn’t even see the bolt itself, just the shattering flash, the shine sizzling out through the noxious atmosphere.
I jerked out my earphones and elbowed Dani, who was doing her Russian II homework by the light of her iPhone 47 in the seat beside me. “Girl, did you see that lightning? I—”
Thunder, so loud that the team cried out and smashed their fingers into their ears. Haley slammed on the brakes as a massive crack webbed through the windshield, and the mini-bus fishtailed onto the shoulder once more.
“Good Lord in Heaven!” Haley gasped. She pressed her hands to her heaving bosom. “That was a big one!”
She inquired about our well being and asked someone for duct tape. Number one singles, Erika, dutifully brought forward her roll, a zebra print that made her racket grip easily the most-coveted of the team, and Haley patched up the windshield.
“Sorry about that, ladies,” she wheezed. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
She drove back onto I-69, slower now that she had to peer around zebra-print tape. I didn’t put T. Swift back on: my phone battery was dead. The storm fizzled out into a steady, mild patter.
It hadn’t been fifteen minutes when Marie, third varsity singles, screamed.
There were no words, just her screaming while she feverishly scrolled through her phone. She slammed her eyes shut and crushed her face into her purple polka-dot fleece tie blanket.
Instantly, the face of every girl around me was illuminated by ghostly phone light. The bus was utterly silent until Erika leapt up out of her seat and whispered something to Haley. The vehicle jolted to another brutal halt in the shoulder. Haley was gazing out the windshield like a wax figure, her mouth hanging limp and her eyes so wide that I could see the whites even in the dark.
“Ladies.” Haley’s voice was a pant, a strained bit of breath. “We will not be returning to the school this evening.”
I shoved Dani, who was also stunned, and hissed, “What happened? Was the school hit by the storm? Is there a bomb threat?”
I said bomb threat because, earlier that year, some idiot from the junior high had scribbled one such promise in a bathroom stall, and the school system had gone crazy for lockdown. We had metal detectors and police surveillance, but you could never be too careful. People cracked up today easier than they did fifty years ago, and they were twice as imaginative.
But Dani did not respond.
Erika, still standing at the front of the bus, surveyed us, her hands clenched onto the back of a seat. Her face was a smooth mask of fortitude; yet when she spoke, her voice tremored.
“Guys,” she said, “we will be returning to Fort Wayne for tonight.” Her lips spasmed. She blinked at the dusty bus floor. “I would say call your parents, but…”
She dipped into a seat before we could glimpse any tears.
“What’s happening?” I exclaimed, and I hate to say how angry I was—and afraid. “Why aren’t we heading back to Pendleton again?”
Dani gazed over at me.
“There is no Pendleton,” she said quietly.
“There’s no Pendleton,” chipped in Aliyah, number two singles. “There’s no Anderson. God, it even got Muncie…”
I said nothing
“Indianapolis was the target, of course,” Aliyah continued with her natural penchant for rationalism. “But 70-mile radius isn’t anything. Everything within a 200-mile radius of New York is practically evaporated—”
“Aliyah,” Erika hissed from the front. “Not. Now.”
“But,” Erika said, and I could tell by her voice how hard she was trying to be optimistic. “But we’ll be fine. Haley will drive us back to Fort Wayne, and we’ll…we’ll…” She looked pleadingly up at the front of the bus. “We’ll do something, right Haley?”
Bad air and no healthcare had killed Haley’s mother with a heart attack at 55.
At 45, Haley groaned and slumped to the floor.
We, with no idea of how to help her, watched her die, her clothes soaked with sweat, her mouth twisted in agony, her hands tearing at her chest as if to pry her ribs open and rip out her insides. Erika put Haley’s head in her lap and pressed a napkin on her face. Dani offered Haley water, and she took a sip only to vomit it up, the bile oozing across the dusty mini-bus floor.
“Oh God,” Haley gasped, shaking. She began to sob. “Oh God…!”
And then, with one last terrible moan, she went limp, and her eyes—a soft and gentle brown—drifted out of focus.
There, on the shoulder of I-69, our tennis team sat in absolute silence, listening to rain tap and the wind whistle in the darkness outside our phone-lit mini bus.
Predictably, it was Aliyah who broke the silence.
“Well,” she said. “Who knows how to drive a mini-bus?”