Susan Cartwright couldn't decide if it was a good or bad thing that a single watermelon could render so many batches of pickled rinds.
She'd heard from her neighbors down the road that pickled watermelon rinds were delicious and easy to make, and finally, the season was here for the perfect thickness, the perfect juiciness, and the perfect amount of free time to cook them and can them. The spices were easy enough to gather. Lord knows she had more than enough jars and lids from last summer.
What she didn't figure on was just how long—or how much—cooking up one watermelon would actually take.
The sun had nearly set by the time the first jars were cool enough to take down to the pantry. Two at a time seemed the safest bet, so Susan cradled one in each arm as she carefully made her way down the basement stairs. Her neighbors all had furnished basements with expensive carpets and plush furniture, but she preferred to use the cold, damp darkness of her old cellar to store her treasured preserves. It was worth not having an extra lounge space; her spiced applesauce won the blue ribbon at the state fair three years in a row.
As she slid the heavy jars of pickled watermelon rinds onto a dusty shelf, her lips pursed and she wondered if there would actually be enough room for all the jars still cooling upstairs on the kitchen counters. If not, maybe she could "gift" a few extras to the neighbors and get some goodies in return.
The sound was soft but unexpected in that silent basement, and Susan jumped a little with surprise. She laughed at herself and shook her head. At least the lid seals were working.
That was odd. There were only two newly canned jars down there; the others had sealed themselves months, even years, ago.
Susan took a step back from the old bookshelf, then another. The popping sound continued, lids on jars from floor to ceiling inverting without provocation. She couldn't feel any heat that might cause this, verified by the goosebumps rising on her arms.
Pop. Pop. Pop.
Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop.
From upstairs came the sounds of more lids sealing—or unsealing—too many to reason with herself they were just the newly pressurized cans of watermelon rinds. In the distance, she could hear a train approach, and she let out a sigh of relief. It sounded like a heavy load, probably coal weighing down cars and shaking the ground enough to set her precious jars off balance. She felt the low tremble in the damp pavement of the cellar and nodded. That must be it.
And then she remembered.
She didn't live near the tracks.
Susan's knuckles grew white as she gripped the railing and climbed the stairs. The old wood steps trembled until they shook, and something deep in her soul whispered to only take one, quick peek through the doorway.
"Oh, my God."
He must have heard her whispered prayer - that was the only explanation as to how she was able to close the basement door in the split second before the windows shattered inward and the kitchen table flew across the room. She screamed when she felt it slam against the other side of the door, a pointless sound deafened by the freight train roar. Her fingers fumbled with the lock and she prayed, oh did she pray, the flimsy thing would hold.
"Hey, Babe, can you toss me another?"
Amy giggled and rolled her eyes with a dramatic flair. She happily handed her husband a cold can of beer from the cooler they'd brought out to the driveway earlier that evening. Warm summer nights like this were perfect for sitting on the hood of their car and enjoying a case of Austin's favorite brew after the kids were tucked into bed.
John and Nancy Sturgis lived in the house next door and always made sure to bring an extra case of beer whenever they joined the Walcotts. Tonight was no exception, and John cracked his own can open almost perfectly in sync with Austin. The men laughed and tapped their beers together, "cheers," and chugged.
"Hey, Honey?" Amy squinted her eyes, blinking a few times. "Is...am I...is it just me, or is the night moving?"
"Whoa! Amy, Baby, maybe we should cut you off a little early!" Austin chuckled and playfully grabbed for her beer. "Gettin' tipsy already?"
"No, I mean..." She felt ridiculous for doing it in the night, but she cupped her hand over her eyes anyways and pointed at the horizon. "Look."
The men and Nancy cocked their brows and shared a humorous smile, but spared their beloved friend and wife the benefit of the doubt and followed her gaze, then her pointed finger. Austin quickly sobered up when he noticed the slight tremble in her hand. Now it was his turn to squint.
Beer splashed on his shoes, the can forgotten.
"EVERYONE INSIDE! NOW!"
Amy ran inside their house and into the rooms of their children with a speed only a mother's adrenaline could fuel. Their soft voices whimpered confusion, but the wild look of terror in her eyes woke them up and they nodded, each clinging to the thick quilts she wrapped around them as she ushered them down into the basement. Austin was not far behind, his voice barking into his cell phone for his parents to seek shelter immediately.
"Austin." Amy spun around halfway down the stairs and was nearly bowled over when he ran into her. She righted herself and grabbed him by the front of his shirt. "Where are the sirens?"
Austin held the phone away from his ear and listened with her.
"Take the kids, get in the freezer." He kissed her firmly before she had a chance to protest. "I'll be right there, I promise."
Only once the door to their standing freezer sealed shut behind his wife and children did he run back outside to his car. Everyone gave him so much good-humored grief for being "one of those" guys, investing in an at-home meat locker so he could personally prepare and store his deer meat every hunting season. Now that he was about to have the last laugh, he didn't feel much like laughing.
His heart pounded in his ears and he used the rhythm like a metronome as he slammed his palm on his car horn over and over and over again. He revved the engine, flashed the brights, honked and honked and honked some more. Next door, John did the same, and soon so did their neighbor another house down. And then another.
When dawn broke over the Miskwa River Valley, it did so without the presence of three small towns.
The President of the United States declared a national emergency and immediately dispatched the National Guard to what remained of each town. Cities from across the state, even border states, lent their hospital staff to operate the medical tents erected to manage the overflow of victims.
No one judged the soldier who tossed his breakfast over the side of the ditch when they tried to reach Mae Schmidt's farm. Three tours in Iraq still didn't prepare him for the sight of horses ripped in half, their limbs scattered across the bean fields. The small, oh so small relief when they finally reached Mae's farm was that no one had to break the news about her prized horses to her. What little remained of the former rodeo queen clutched the chains of the barn door - found in the woods three miles away.
Local officials scrambled to explain why the consistently tested tornado alarm system of the Portund township failed that fateful night. All anyone was able to figure out was the reason why emergency personnel gathered survivors instead of bodies: "the ungodly ruckus", as one woman huffed, of Austin Walcott and his car. No one gave him crap about his eccentricities ever again.
The director of the city morgue strongly considered retiring right there on the spot when he pulled his truck into the center of what used to be Stillwind. Not only were tombstones from the local graveyard split and scattered in the debris and rubble—entire caskets had been ripped from the ground and tossed around like ghoulish confetti. Ralph Coulter, so close to retirement age anyway, felt that final sip of coffee slide down his throat as he stared at the fractured marble marker of "Jim Bar-, Beloved..." lodged in the hood of someone's tractor engine. He sighed, then fished his outdated flip phone from his pocket to speed-dial an old friend.
"Heya, Phil? Yeah, it's a mess. An absolute mess. I've gotta handle the fresh ones but there's more than just - yup, you heard me right. Straight outta the ground. If I'm lyin', I'm dyin'." He winced at the ill-timed joke that tumbled from his lips before he could stop himself, but his friend either didn't mind or didn't care. "Thanks, Phil. I'll keep an eye out for 'im."
Ralph slid out of his truck and immediately thanked his good sense for wearing steel-toed boots to the site. The ground was nothing but shattered brick and twisted rebar, with old wood beams and only-God-knows-what scattered amongst the debris. His mouth pressed into a firm line when he saw one of the local rescue workers wave him over, and he gave them a quick nod.
He felt his phone buzz in his pocket and he snapped it open, not stopping his careful trek across the rubble. "Yeah? No, that's fine, I understand. Take care of you and yours first, we can meet up when you're done there. Thank God you weren't turned away, right? I heard the overflow is insane. Yeah, alright."
They were going to have to figure out some sort of organizational pattern for the grim job he was here to do. It was only 6 am and this was going to be the first of many, many bodies Ralph would have to identify so the police could notify the next of kin. His heart sank into his stomach when he thought of the estimated population of the three towns that, in literal minutes, were wiped from the map forever.
One small blessing, if he could call it that, was that he already knew who this first body belonged to. They attended church together. She always brought a fresh jar of her spiced applesauce to the potlucks.
There wasn't enough room in the car for Prax, and she was the one who needed the ride. Dozens upon dozens of flowers, most of them roses and lilies, many more she didn't recognize, were packed inside the small vehicle. Very beautiful, to be sure, but it made for a very tight-fitting squeeze into the front seat. "Mom, really...."
Her mother blushed and laughed it off as she helped Prax settle into the seat and find the buckle. "Hey, I can't help it if you're popular! These are just the traveling flowers, wait until we get home."
"Oh no." Prax laughed and brushed a stargazer lily from her face, careful to not let pollen fall on her clean shirt. After spending over a week in a hospital gown hooked up to monitors, she wanted to enjoy the new freedom and new clothes without staining either one.
No one knew how Prax was even alive.
They said it was some random storm chaser who found her unconscious in one of the cornfields ravaged by the deadly tornado. The path of destruction left by the record-breaking F6 twister was staggering. Scientists both certified and amateur immediately swarmed the region prowling for data, quickly joined by storm chasers of similar variety who bemoaned missing this titanic vortex and began searching the clouds for signs of another. That's the only explanation any of the medical staff could muster as to who the Good Samaritan might have been.
The media storm that ensued nearly rivaled that of the tornado itself—no one could believe that amidst such carnage, such record-shattering damage, this young woman was found alive. All other survivors were found locked inside shelters, makeshift safe holds, or deep underground in century-old root cellars in forgotten fields.
Prax was found naked, covered in mud and debris, and breathing. Her injuries healed well, quickly enough for the hospital stay to wrap up without much fuss from her doctors. When she first awoke from her coma, there was significant concern over her memory loss and she heard the physicians murmur frightening words like "amnesia" and "keep under observation". It was terrifying enough to wake up with endless tubes and large machinery attached to her body. Her red-haired doctor kept saying a name she didn’t recognize, kept talking to her as if she were someone else, and frowned while furiously scribbling notes onto a clipboard when the only response was confusion and fear.
But the moment Demi Sadeh entered the room, relief washed over both their faces. She recognized her, even if not on a logical level—something deeply innate, intrinsically primal, confirmed this serene, older version of herself was, without a doubt, her mother. Concern flickered in the eyes of her nurses when she didn't respond to the name her mother used, the same name her doctor kept trying. Or another, shorter word that made the doctor pause mid-scribble while her mother looked at her expectantly.
Still nothing. No flicker of recognition. If everyone in the room hadn’t been staring at her so expectantly with bated breath, she wouldn’t have even bothered to look up.
It was with a heavy sigh, one laden with resignation as her mother pinched the bridge of her nose and rubbed, that Demi tried one other name. “Prax—”
She sat up immediately, whipped her gaze from the bland gelatin on her lunch tray to grin at her mother. “Yes! Prax! That sounds right!”
The fiery-haired doctor lifted a brow and peered curiously at her mother, whose face showed signs of an internal war between trepidation, irritation, and sheer relief. “Prax it is, then,” was all she said before she turned to the doctor and asked for a prognosis.
No broken bones, according to the multiple imaging tests they ran immediately upon her arrival. With only a few bumps and scrapes, a few bruises, the main concern was more about any potential damage to her brain. They all initially thought her sleep was due to exhaustion, but when she remained asleep for several days, unresponsive to any stimuli, that's when the worry sank in. When the word “coma” was used.
Now she was wide awake and happy to go home.
Wherever that was.
Another media storm threatened to brew, all with the good intention of welcoming this "Miracle In the Mud" back to the realm of the living, but the hospital staff supported Demi's formidable insistence that they be left alone.
"Remember—" Demi stopped herself with a small laugh. "Sorry. I meant to just say, to remind you, that the doctors said it's okay if you don't remember everything right away. As long as it comes back to you eventually, even if it's piece by piece."
"I know." Prax offered her mom a genuine smile and relaxed as they drove.
Bogarten wasn't a large city by way of Chicago or New York, but it was sizable enough for the rural peoples of the American Midwest. The town-city boasted its own hospital, a feature that turned into a benefit and relief for Demi when they found her daughter. Somehow, for reasons literally no one possessed, the tornado had completely skipped over Bogarten and resumed its journey towards the smaller towns only a few miles away. No one wanted to imagine the true devastation that might have been, had the tornado touched down sooner than it did.
The Miskwa River flowed through the center of town and was the source of most of the founding industry, which evolved into more of a tourist attraction over the decades as new technology replaced the need for water power. Being the Midwest, Bogarten's residents didn't see a need for "total facelifts", as Planning and Zoning called it, so many of the buildings retained the historic beauty of their handcrafted brick and chiseled moldings.
They also proudly hosted a small university near the center of town, where Professor Demi Sadeh taught biology and supervised the botanical center alongside aspiring graduate students specializing in botany. She pointed out the buildings which housed her office, her classrooms, and several other features as they drove through campus on a “mini-tour”, as she called it, the final leg of their purposefully slow drive through Bogarten. Prax held a loving suspicion that at least half of the fragrant bouquets tightly packed inside the car were grown, picked, and arranged by her mother's students from the botanical center to welcome her home.
“Home”, apparently, was only a few blocks away from campus—and what a building! As the car pulled into the driveway, Prax marveled at the glass dome framed with wrought iron through which she could see the tops of ferns, ficus, and the blossoms of even more flowers she didn't recognize. The sharp angles of the brick and stone combined with elegant curves in the iron mimicked several of the buildings they drove past through the campus, leading Prax to wonder if “home” once belonged to the university. Letters faded by time and the elements confirmed her hypothesis when she stepped to the front door; the words "Department of Biology" were etched into the stone. Given the way her mother packed every nook and cranny with foliage, even on the front doorstep, it might as well be.