In 2014 tornadoes swept across the northeast corner of Nebraska, destroying the small town of Pilger. Families stood at the only intersection in town, surveying the damage. I watched them gather in the street: small, sad shapes in the midst of half-destroyed buildings, a landscape punctuated with too many jagged edges. Eventually, they turned toward the places where their homes once stood to pick up the pieces of life the storms didn’t swallow.
Jackson was the last person to stand in the intersection the day the tornado wiped out the town. When I saw him come out the front door of his house, the only house with a front door left, it was dark. The glass had been blown out of the windows and shingles ripped off the roof, but the brick and mortar construction had held up. He ambled up the street, the full moon the only working light in town, with his hands shoved deep in his pockets, the shuffle of his sneakers creating a soft, steady thump against the pavement. His hair was longer since I had seen him last. It hung in his eyes and past his shoulders. I hid behind the tree in our yard, a six-foot-tall trunk with a splintered end pointing toward the sky, its top half carried away by the wind.
He stopped walking, stood in his usual place, and fished a cigarette from his pocket, the flame warming his face for an instant. Twelve hours earlier the main street through town that eventually became Route 77 had been cluttered with downed limbs, roof shingles, stray planks of wood from old barns, pieces of aluminum siding, and carcasses of chickens from the chicken farm on the edge of town. The access road to the farm had been cleared and bulldozed. The smell of chicken manure permeated the night air and hung like a blanket over us. We were used to it. We had grown up with the smell of chicken and cow and pig drifting through our open bedroom windows.
Jackson and I were a thing once. In the early months of summer before our senior year, we would ride our bikes to Miller’s Pond, a few miles outside of town where the farmlands gave way to small acres of spared forest. We swam in the cool water, floating on our backs, tethered to its surface by invisible anchors.
“After graduation we can move to Lincoln,” I told him. I pulled out blades of tall grass and braided them together. “I can take classes and work part-time somewhere. Maybe you can get a job at the racetrack.”
Jackson reached over and tucked my hair behind my ear, then smiled and closed his eyes. “The racetrack,” he murmured. “The racetrack is the real deal.”
“Our own little place too,” I said, lying down on my side so we were face to face. “Lincoln will be good for us.” He kissed me, and I lingered there as the world fell away, and I could feel the heat from the Nebraska sun rising from his body.
He turned away from me toward the low vibrations forming in the air behind him. Bees had discovered our open cans of Mountain Dew. I sat up and waved the air near them with my hand. Jackson had almost died from a sting when he was five. His dad had found him swollen and barely breathing behind the house when he’d come home from work. Passed out on the couch, his mom didn’t know what had happened until they returned from the hospital in the middle of the night, Jackson wrapped in blankets and pumped full of epinephrine.
When his dad disappeared, Jackson dropped out of school, dropped out of life. His mom, fingers fumbling with the inside locks, opened their door with red-rimmed eyes and a glass of vodka in her hand and told me he wasn’t home. I trudged back up the street, knowing Jackson was somewhere in his house. Many nights, after his dad left, I would watch him from my bedroom window as he walked to the center of town and waited in the intersection, peering down the long stretch of road that took people away from us and into Lincoln. He told me once about his dad’s truck: an old, rusted-out Chevy with a headlight that was always on the verge of going out. It fluttered like it was drifting to sleep, then would wake and shine with blinding intensity before fading again.
I could see Jackson now in the moonlight, standing in the street. Toward the edge of town, far off in the distance, a pair of headlights was coming toward Pilger. Jackson threw the cigarette to the ground and straightened up. The invisible weight that pressed down on his neck and shoulders disappeared. The right headlight of the car twitched. Jackson took a step forward and so did I, leaving my hidden spot behind the tree. We stood there, waiting, watching the headlights in anticipation as they drifted closer and closer to us. I closed my eyes and inhaled the scent of damp earth and wood, of summer, of the memory of Jackson’s bare skin.
When I opened my eyes the headlights were gone, had changed direction, away from him, away from town, turning instead down the access road to the chicken farm.
“Jackson!” I called as he passed my house. His pace quickened. I yelled again, but he kept walking, his footsteps the only sound aside from the occasional howls of stray dogs who had lost their owners in the storm.
I never saw Jackson again. I heard from the cashier who worked at the hardware store that he was living twenty miles north of Pilger in Wayne, fixing up cars at the local body shop. Someone else said they saw him in Lincoln at the racetrack, watching from outside the gates as the drivers made their engines roar until the ground vibrated, whipping up tornadoes of dust as they chased each other around the track.
“Don’t bother. He’s never coming back,” his mother said through the torn screen door. The steps to their house had begun to fall apart. Garbage bags fluttered in the windows, temporary panes never replaced after the tornado. She came out to the porch, lit a cigarette, and blew the smoke into the air above my head. “He’s just like his father, sweetheart.”
Dark clouds had begun to gather in the west, turning the sky eerie shades of gray and yellow. “Storm’s a-comin’,” she said, the hard, defiant outline of her body gradually wilting as she ground out the remains of her cigarette on the warped wood planks below her slippered feet and reached for the door without looking back at me. Jackson would drift, and Nebraska would swallow him into its unpredictable landscape.
The sky opened up as I pulled onto 77 toward Lincoln. I drove slowly in the hard rain, watching for hitchhikers, for ghosts and shadows, until I reached the edges of the city and the farmland ran up against the suburbs.