The Cooks weren’t buying. Kelly knew the signs. They’d lost their smiles at the threshold. Stopped asking questions two steps inside. Now they’d started The Shuffle, that awkward retreat toward the front door.
“I didn’t show you the windows,” said Kelly, still going through the motions. “These are multi-layer, laminated, with aluminum frames. They’ll withstand winds to one seventy, impact to—”
“What’s this film? These bubbles?” Mrs. Cook tapped the glass like a kid at a fish tank.
“That’s shatterproof vinyl. It holds the pieces together if the window does break.”
Mr. Cook frowned. “Isn’t the glass shatterproof already?”
“It is,” said Kelly. “But this is one more layer, one more line of defense. And did you see the hurricane shutters? Those are galvanized steel, top of the line.”
“A bit clunky, aren’t they?” Mrs. Cook edged past Kelly, into the last steps of The Shuffle—circle left, swing your partner, do-si-do out the door. Kelly moved to intercept her.
“You have kids, right?” She covered her desperation with a wide, brittle smile. “My boy grew up in this house. Took his first steps by that couch. He used to bring me flowers from the garden out back, roses and pentas and… And see that sunbeam? He’d fall asleep right there, when he was small.”
Mrs. Cook stared at her, then looked away. Mr. Cook cleared his throat. “About that roof,” he said. “I thought I saw—” Outside, the wind picked up, whistling in the eaves. A car alarm whooped in sympathy. Kelly cupped her ear.
“I said, are those asphalt shingles?”
Kelly sucked in a deep breath and roared in his face, “Fiberglass! Wind-resistant! Warranty good till twenty thirty-two!” The alarm cut out at fiberglass. Mr. Cook jerked back. He wiped his face—had she spit on him?—and glanced at his wife.
“You have a beautiful home,” said Mrs. Cook. “We’ll let you know.”
“If you have any questions…” Kelly trailed off. The Shuffle was done, and so was she. Would a new roof have clinched it, or dug her deeper in debt? She plopped down on the stairs and hid her face in her hands. Selling cut deep, straight to the bone. But the constant rejection, those puckered-prune frowns—was her home not good enough? The home she’d made with Zach? Resentment rose like acid, sour in her throat.
“Next time,” she muttered. “Tomorrow, next week…”
The wind sighed and gusted. Feet scuffed on the stoop. Kelly sprang to attention, expecting the Cooks, but the boot that pushed in was dusty and worn. Her brother-in-law’s boot, soon followed by his elbow.
“Kelly? You in there? I could use a hand, if you are.” Eddie lurched in sideways, a garden of potted plants spilling from his arms. He caught one with his chin and charged the hall table. “Aw, man! Aw—” His hip caught the edge and his cargo went flying, a clatter of pots and a wild spray of dirt, a riot of blossoms up in the air.
“Nice one,” said Kelly. “You couldn’t have taken two trips?”
“I could. But I didn’t.”
“Story of your life.” Kelly crouched down to help with the mess. “These are pretty,” she said. “Zoe’s birthday surprise?”
Eddie squatted next to her and reached for one of the plants. He dusted it carefully and blew soil off its leaves. “Primula auricula, Lady Zoe,” he said. “You think she’ll like them?”
“You picked them for the name?” Kelly flicked a blossom and watched it bob on its stem. “I think she’ll love them. They’re cheerful, just like her.”
“They’re her favorite color, that deep, rich purple. At least, I think she likes that. She’s always wearing that hoodie, the one with the…” Eddie made a vague gesture. His lips twitched and drew into a thin, worried line.
Kelly touched his arm. “She’ll love them, okay?”
“Come help me plant them?”
“Of course.” Kelly patted the last plant back into its pot. “Where were you thinking? Out by the shed?”
“By the rock wall, where they’re out of the wind.” Eddie peered outside. “What’s with that wind today? It’s out of control.”
“Worse than usual, you think?”
“You tell me.” Eddie held the back door to let Kelly out first. She paused at the threshold and raised her face to the sky—that weird, washed-out sky, like old, faded denim. Kids born today wouldn’t remember blue skies, real blue, bright blue, the kind from a postcard. “Sky blue” would mean this to them, slate, not cerulean. The clouds scudding by were ragged and gray.
“It’s pretty windy,” she said. “But no worse than last week.”
“I saw one of those smart cars blowing up the road.” Eddie let the door go and it slammed at his back. “It kept drifting left, then the guy’d swerve it right.”
“Who’d even drive that on a day like today?” Kelly set down her plant pots along the rock wall. “Shouldn’t you wait and plant these when Zoe’s home from school?”
“Nah. I want her to come out and get the full effect.” Eddie went to the shed and came back with two trowels. “Hey, Kelly?”
“When Jackson was Zoe’s age, when he was thirteen…” He paused a moment, then sat on the wall. “He had friends, right? Kids he brought home from school?”
“Well, he had Ray. Those two are like this.” She held up crossed fingers. “And he had his Scout friends, and the kids from next door. But, Eddie—”
“I knew it. Something’s wrong.” He picked at the pink scar across his left palm. “I talked to her teacher and he swears she’s fine, but she needs friends, right? She’s been here six months now, so where are her friends?”
Kelly dug in the dirt—something to do while she gathered her thoughts. The rich, wormy smell brought a prick of nostalgia, a half-buried memory she couldn’t quite place. Planting tomatoes with Jackson when he was just six? Or something more distant, from her own salad days? Summers at Grandma’s, fishing in the creek? Crickets, cicadas, that rich summer hum? A worm on her hook, grubbed up from the field, the sun at her back, the sky blue as—
“She’s twelve in ninth grade,” she said. “Well, thirteen today, but that’s still young. Most of those kids are fourteen, fifteen. Riding the edge between kids and adults. They’re getting their learner’s permits, experimenting with…” Kelly cleared her throat. “And it’s got to be weird for her, going from homeschooled to this.” She eased a plant from its pot and snugged it into the earth. “Give her a chance. She’ll make friends, you’ll see.”
Eddie made a huh sound and lowered himself to the ground. “I just wish she’d talk to me. Let me be her dad.”
Kelly tried not to laugh, but a harsh bark broke loose. Eddie shot her a pained look.
“What? What’s so funny?”
“Just, welcome to parenthood. To the terrible teens. I ask Jackson how his day went, and you know what he says?”
“I don’t know. ‘Fine’?”
“That’d be a good day. Most times, he just grunts. Then he grabs a sandwich and goes to his room, and I don’t see him again till I call him for dinner.” Her hair blew in her face and she brushed it away. “You missed the easy part. The part where they’re tiny and you’re their whole world. When you ask how their day went and they can’t shut up—and the teacher said this, and my best friend did that, and Mom, did I tell you… Man, I miss that.” She brushed at her face again. Her throat had gone tight.
“So, what you’re saying is, I’m starting my ski career on the black diamond slope.”
“Only, I skipped the bunny hill, so…what do I do?”
Kelly blew out a harsh breath. “You’re asking me?”
“You did a great job with Jackson.”
Her frown deepened. Had she? Just six months more, and he’d be old enough to vote. A man, fully cooked, and how could that be? Ready to work, to pay rent, to serve his country. A sharp snort escaped her. “He’s been skipping class,” she said. “Him and Ray both, running off God knows where. When I ask where he’s been, he says ‘you know. Around.’”
“Oh, yeah.” Eddie chuckled. “I know around. Round back of the Kwik Stop smoking a jay. Sneaking in nightclubs with my fake ID. Me and Pam Gregson behind the—”
Kelly smacked him a good one upside his head. “Jackson does not smoke. Or go to clubs.”
“’Course not. I’m just saying—”
“I’ve got some stakes in the shed.” Kelly jumped up and hurried inside. She dug out the garden stakes and stood clutching them to her chest. Was Jackson in trouble? Drinking? Smoking? She hadn’t smelled it on him, but that didn’t mean much. He came home black with motor oil more nights than not, from working on Ray’s car, at the Leons’ auto shop. That thick garage stink could hide all kinds of sins.
Uh-uh. Don’t go there.
She flicked on the radio. Hunted for the weather. WFLA was out again, but she caught Ned and Jim on Laff 108, squeezing in their report at the top of the hour.
“Now, your update on Tropical Storm Barker—”
“Barker? That’s a weird one. Who names their storm Barker?” Ned made a barking sound, or maybe that was Jim. Canned laughter brayed, and a canned ba-dum-tss.
“Well, Jim, till this year, nobody at all. Did you know there’s a list, what to name your pet storm? Yeah, they’ve got this whole list, the World Meteorological Organization—and then there’s a backup list, if they run out of names. Well, they ran through their list, then they ran through their backup, and here’s where we’re at—Tropical Storm Barker blowing up our caboose. We’ve got winds gusting sixty, no, seventy miles an hour, close to hurricane speeds—”
“But stay cool, Orlando. We’ll see some rain, along with that wind, but the worst of the storm’s set to pass us by. Just a regular Snow day, so let’s thank our—”
Kelly thumbed off the radio. Outside, the sky was clear, that dull, vacant blue. But the clouds blew in fast these days, since the Snowstorm hit. She grabbed an old tarp and shook it free of cobwebs. Eddie cocked a brow at her.
“What’s with the shroud? Got a body to bury?”
“Ha.” She dropped the tarp on the grass. “It’s to keep the rain off the flowers. We don’t want them flattened before Zoe gets home.”
“More rain. Perfect. Is it too much to ask, just one nice, clear day?”
Kelly crouched next to Eddie, and for a while, they worked in silence. He’d been to McDonald’s—she smelled it on his breath. That meant he was either broke or upset, in search of a cheap meal or cheap comfort food. She nudged him in the ribs.
“Hey, about Zoe—”
“I didn’t mean that, about Jackson.” Eddie turned to look at her, his brow creased with worry. “I meant me—you know that, right? The crap I got up to when I was his age.”
“I know,” said Kelly. “I wasn’t worried.” She had been, still was, but no sense in dwelling. She nudged Eddie again, and plucked out a blues theme on a trowel-guitar. “Ba-na-na-na.”
Eddie laughed. “Are you serious?”
“Well, my little girl ain’t so little no more…”
“Too smart by half; I just don’t—” Eddie broke off so sharply his throat went click.
He grabbed her by the collar and jerked her back hard. Kelly choked and flailed. Her feet went out from under her and she landed flat in the grass. Her head hit a rock and she drew breath to scream—and then she saw it creeping out past the shed, a globe of blue light so bright her eyes streamed. It quested like a live thing, darting left and right. Sniffing toward her, like—
“Gah! Get back.” Eddie clutched her arm. “What—what the—?”
“Ball lightning, I think.” She scrambled back crabwise, churning up dirt. The ball followed, unhurried, spitting blue fire. It dipped past the rock wall and her hair stood on end. A high-voltage shiver crawled up her scalp. She clenched her teeth and her fillings thrummed, and she tasted hot metal.
“Zoe’s flowers!” Eddie lunged for the garden hose, but Kelly snatched it away.
“It’s lightning, not fire. You can’t put it out.”
The ball hissed and dove, straight into the flowers. It blew apart with a crack and a vile waft of sulfur. Sparks rose and scattered, and Eddie dropped to his knees.
“No way. No way.” His voice caught and broke. “Zoe’s flowers. They’re all ruined. They’re burned to dust.” He reached for the ashen remains of his plants. His thumb brushed the black blooms and they crumbled away.
“Tell me I’m dreaming.” He scooped a handful of ash and let it drain between his fingers. “How does this happen? Just tell me how.”
“The Snowstorm, that’s how.” Kelly scowled at the gray sky. “This is Donn Snow.”
Eddie threw back his head and let out a bellow, a raw, wounded sound that died without an echo. Kelly stood and watched him, sick with dismay.
Why’d you do it, Donn Snow? Why’d you go and do it?
Zoe stood at the bathroom sink and let the cold tap run. The lukewarm tap, if you wanted to stickle. Cold was a dream in here, which was funny, right? That a Snow shelter was boiling—Snow swelter, more like—and a Snow day meant school.
She scooped up warm water and splashed it on her face. It smelled strongly of chlorine and faintly of rust. Out in the hall, the intercom rattled on, the same canned announcement she’d had memorized for months. She mouthed along out of habit, watching herself in the mirror.
Second period begins promptly at ten fifteen. Please swipe your S-card at your classroom’s card reader. For lost or stolen S-cards, see the front desk. Keep right in the halls, and proceed to your classroom in a swift and orderly fashion. And don’t forget—
“You know what I heard?” The bathroom door banged open and Hazel Grant barged in. Her retinue came with her, Shona and Mari, Kendra and Jaye. They spotted Zoe and formed a tight little knot, a circle of backs with her on the outside. Hazel beckoned them even closer, lowering her voice. “So, you know those Coke machines at the Fashion Square mall? Not the ones in the mall, but the ones down the street by that place with the bikes?”
Jaye shrugged. “Dick’s Sporting Goods?”
“I don’t know—are there bikes?”
“Well, whatever.” Hazel dug in her purse and dropped her voice to a whisper. “Anyway, so your S-card? If you shove it in the dollar slot, it spits out a Coke.”
“What, for free?”
“No, for a dollar. Of course for free.” She snapped her purse shut and spun on her heel. Her eyes caught Zoe’s in the mirror. “What are you looking at?”
Zoe’s face went hot. She’d been entertaining a fantasy of being part of their group. Of stealing Cokes from Dick’s Sporting Goods and beating a giggling retreat. Running straight to the mall, into a nineties teen movie. They’d hang out, get makeovers, maybe even meet boys. Get banned from the food court for blowing the papers off straws.
“Hello, Earth to Homeschool?” Hazel snapped her fingers. “You done, or what?”
Zoe shut off the cold tap and wiped her face. “Sorry,” she said. “I, uh… I’ve been to that mall. With my dad, to TJ’s.”
Hazel’s eyes widened. “I’m sorry—did you say TJ’s?”
Shona nudged Mari, who let out a snort. Jaye covered her mouth.
“That’s not at Fashion Square,” said Hazel, taking in Zoe’s outfit. “But it explains so much.”
The walls rang with laughter. Zoe’s heart sank. She wasn’t sure what was wrong with what she was wearing—a powder-pink blouse with a bow at the collar; loose fitting jeans in a rich shade of purple—but one thing was clear: she’d failed to pass muster. She wouldn’t be stealing Coke today, or ducking bunny ears at the Kwik Snap kiosk.
“Come on,” said Shona. “We’re going to be late.”
The girls trooped out, ponytails swinging. Zoe leaned over the sink, catching her breath. The heat was oppressive, and worse, it was wet. Like a big sweaty hug that soaked through your shirt. It had a weight to it, pressing in from all sides.
Second period begins in five minutes. Please swipe your S-card and find your seat. If you need medical assistance, proceed to the nurse’s office on level B, or pick up any red emergency phone. For lost or stolen S-cards, see the front desk.
Zoe dug in her pocket till she found her inhaler. She didn’t need it just yet, but her chest felt tight. Like she had something stuck in there, a scream or a sob. She forced it down with a smile and left the bathroom behind. Proceeded to her classroom in a swift and orderly fashion, down the gray row of lockers and past the red phone. Past a thick, curled firehose stamped CCS-28. Coastal Climate Shelters, they called them—only, nobody did. Even the teachers said Snow shelters. Even the news.
She found her next class and swiped her card. The reader flashed orange, then yellow, then green. Mr. Reynolds glanced at her, then back at his tablet.
“Okay, we’re green,” he said. “All present and…seriously? Come on, look alive.” He clapped his hands loudly. No one looked up. “Look, I know we’re all hot, but let’s make this work. Let’s…what do the Brits say? Towel off and carry on?”
Zoe laughed politely. No one else did. Someone blew a loud fart, the kind Dad called a seat-rattler.
“Less of that,” said Mr. Reynolds. “Remember, these windows don’t open.”
A faint groan went up. Mr. Reynolds ignored it. Hazel mouthed something at Zoe as she took her seat—Homeschool, maybe. Hazel was many things, but creative wasn’t one of them.
Mr. Reynolds went to the whiteboard and wiped it clean. “Speaking of the environment, today’s debate’s a fun one. Was Donn Snow right or wrong to launch the Snowstorm?” He turned, smiling brightly. Zoe slid down in her seat. “Arguing for him, we’ve got Zoe and Braden. Against him, we—okay, save your booing. Debate’s an intellectual exercise, not an excuse to vent your spleen. Against, we have Hazel, and—”
“Sst, Zoe. Over here.” Braden leaned toward her, and Zoe’s mouth went dry. He had one of those TV smiles, like Otto Farrant. She smiled back, uncertain.
“I thought we were against. All my notes are against.” He tore out his notes and crumpled them in a ball. “He shoots. He—”
“No!” Zoe jumped up and caught them. She smoothed them out on her desk and traced her finger down the page. “Most of these’ll still work,” she said. “You just take each argument and go with the reverse. Like, he should’ve asked first. What’s the opposite of that?”
Braden chewed his lip. “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to ask permission?”
“Exactly,” said Zoe. “He could’ve asked, and there’d have been committees. There’d have been bills, Senate sessions, debates on debates. It could’ve gone on for years. By the time he got permission, it could’ve been too late.”
Braden took back his notes. “Do you really believe that?”
“Till we win this debate, I do. And so do you.”
Braden’s eyes crinkled, and he burst out laughing. Zoe cringed, embarrassed, but he held up his hand.
“Gonna leave me hanging?”
“You’re in it to win it, right? So gimme some skin.”
Zoe slapped him five. He didn’t yank his hand away or laugh in her face. Zoe held her breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop—the part where everyone snickered and her neck went all hot. But Braden was up and heading for the front. No one was looking at her, not even Hazel. Had she actually, somehow…had she got it right?
Mr. Reynolds clapped his hands again. “Debaters, front and center. Zoe, you’re first. You’ll have sixty seconds to present your central argument. Then, Hazel, it’s your turn, so listen to Zoe and be ready to pounce. If she slips up, if her facts are off, you make sure she feels it.”
Zoe stood up, scowling, and took her place at the front. Her head swam and spun. She sucked back a deep breath. “My facts are just fine,” she said. “Fact: before the Snowstorm, we were on the verge of climate disaster. Of a planet incompatible with human life. Of a refugee crisis we couldn’t control.” She paused, gripped the lectern, and filled her lungs with wet air. Her chest felt hot, her skin cold and prickly. “Fact,” she went on— “we’ve been aware of the greenhouse effect since 1896. We’ve had over a century to fight climate change. To quit guzzling fossil fuels. Replant our rainforests. We haven’t done any of that, not on a scale that’d make—that’d make any difference.” She gulped air. Almost done. “Donn Snow did something. He pumped sulfates into the stratosphere to promote global cooling. Did that come with downsides? Yes. Yes, it did. But if the choice is an imperfect solution or no solution at all, the right path—the only path—is the imperfect solution.”
She sat down, breathing hard. Braden pushed a bottle into her hand.
“Drink. You’re all flushed.”
Zoe unscrewed the cap and took a grateful slurp. Water streamed down her chin and she wiped it away. She passed the bottle to Braden, but he shook his head.
“You might need it later. You look kinda—”
“Quiet in the peanut gallery.” Mr. Reynolds wagged his finger. “Hazel, go ahead.”
Hazel stepped up to the lectern, full of righteous purpose. “Donn Snow was wrong, wrong, wrong. So wrong I can’t even.” She glanced at her notes, then set them aside. “He might’ve cooled the planet—we don’t know that yet—but honestly, Zoe, I don’t get why this is even a debate. How can you defend him? Do you even watch the news?”
Zoe hunched over. She needed to breathe, to rest, find her calm. Once you relaxed, you needed less air.
“Here’s a fact for you: the Snowstorm tore up the ozone layer like cheap tissue paper. Both poles are melting. Tropical storms are up four hundred percent. My dad’s sign blew down and pancaked his car.” She smacked her palm on the lectern. A pen jumped off the side. “He could’ve been in there. He almost was. How can you defend Donn Snow, when my dad nearly died?”
Zoe looked up, blinking. All eyes were on her. She opened her mouth, wheezed, and closed it again.
“Let’s not make this personal,” said Mr. Reynolds. “Hazel, move on.”
“No, I want an answer.” Hazel skirted the lectern and leaned on Zoe’s desk. “How about it, Homeschool? How many dead dads are okay by you?”
Zoe lurched to her feet, her throat cotton-tight. “You’re making my point,” she gasped. “Could’ve been in there. Co—could’ve died, but he didn’t. We’d have gone through years of that, years of could’ve and… And—ah—” The blood sang in her ears, a high, keening whine. She half-fell, missed her seat, and hit the desk belly-first. Hot air whoofed out of her and she was choking, drowning. Someone was holding her. Lowering her to the ground. The ceiling blurred and doubled, a thousand dots swimming like tadpoles in jelly.
“Zoe, your inhaler—”
“She’s faking. She’s—”
“Her lips are turning blue!”
Zoe clawed at her own throat. Someone grabbed her hands and pinned them to her chest.
“The medical cabinet. There’s oxygen in there.”
“Everyone step aside.” A dark figure loomed over her, holding—a plastic bag? A cloth? He pressed it to her face and her heart raced and skipped. Spots burst in her vision, revealing blackness beyond. Zoe bucked and fought, one wild, senseless thought bubbling up through the fog: Can’t die like this. Not while Hazel’s…right.