In the middle of a barren wasteland, a small town goes through the motions as if nothing’s changed. Lolly has school, a part time job, a senile grandmother that needs looking after. But everything has changed, and Lolly’s always one storm away from facing that.
The convenience store smells like Solarcaine and orange soda. Lolly’s bubble pops and gum plasters over her mouth while the delivery man smooths a Band-Aid in place on his elbow. The door rattles shut behind him and the mini cathedral bell from the dollar store clinks. Lolly picks the waxlike bubble gum off her chin. She remembers she needs to get a new razor, because in a week or so she’ll have to shave her legs.
A woman comes in, her skin the color of caramelized onions and her hair a dark cocoa pulsing with yellow highlights. The flesh of her face is stretched taut, as if she’s pinned all the wrinkles back behind her ears, except for the crow’s feet at her eyes, which are more like sparrow’s feet. She’s wearing a billowing coat of brown leather, lined with mustard yellow fur, that doesn’t particularly match her slinky turquoise scarf.
Lolly doesn’t realize the woman’s brought the boy until he pops out from behind her cavernous coat. His skin is a shade lighter than his mother’s, his hair a shade darker, his sunglasses framed in orange, hers, leopard print.
Lolly scrapes the gum off her upper lip so roughly it tears off a few overgrown hairs. The woman goes to the cooler in the back of the store, where they keep the alcohol. Lolly can just see the green of her scarf between the bags of tortilla chips on the chip rack. The boy shuffles over to the counter, gaze scanning the rows of colorful lotto tickets he’s too young to buy. He puts a candy bar on the counter and Lolly waves it under the bar-code scanner once, twice, staring blindly at the image of milk chocolate pieces with white chocolate centers. A streak of fluorescent light catches across the metallic candy wrapper, cutting the chocolate image in half and blurring the bar’s name.
Beep. A price flashes on the cash register in bright green.
Lolly drops the bar back on the counter, and the boy hesitantly tugs it toward him by the end flap of the wrapper, which crinkles between his fingers. More crinkling as he uncovers the chocolate. More beeping as Lolly voids the item from the cash register, using the manager code. The first time the woman and the boy came in Lolly charged them and almost got fired. Ever since then, she’s been tempted to charge them again.
Through the radio static that crackles around the store, an announcer starts to deliver the weather. Lolly fishes the remote out from under the cash register and changes to a station playing bluegrass. The boy winces and the woman opens the cooler so sharply it slams against the wall. Lolly knows the woman doesn’t like country or hip-hop or classical. She adds bluegrass to her mental list and returns the remote to its resting place next to the dusty medical kit. It hasn’t been opened since Lolly started working at the corner store. Whenever someone gets a scratch or a cut they just crack open a new box of Band-Aids, fresh off the household necessities shelf.
The woman’s boots squeak aggressively as she marches to the front of the store, six packs clenched in both hands. Her engagement ring flashes in the store lights like a dewdrop dangling from the tip of a weed.
Lolly can’t make out the woman’s eyes through the sunglasses; she never can, but she knows when the woman pauses like this, in front of the counter, she’s glaring at Lolly. Or maybe she isn’t, but she’s definitely staring, and it’s definitely a dare. “Gonna charge me again, bitch?” It’s what the woman said the second time she came into the store, and she hasn’t said a word to Lolly since.
The woman leaves and the door clatters. Lolly breathes out a gum bubble to critical mass and lets it hover, blotting out all of the boy except for the stray hairs of his bedhead. Alone like that, the hairs almost look black. As black as his eyes look through the sunglasses.
Lolly’s bubble pops and the boy is gone, the citadel bell echoing as the door beats itself back into place. There’s a little origami heart covering the top prize for a stack of cheap lotto tickets: $200, in big, bold gold, as if that were enough to keep someone comfortable for more than half a year. The heart is metallic and, on its left bump, sports the cleaved image of a milk chocolate candy bar.
Lolly throws the heart in the garbage under the cash register, then changes the radio back to its usual station. The weather forecast’s long over.
Every patch of Granny Ma’s flesh is crusty scales, sketched by raw red skin so paper thin it’s about to break, or already has. Sometimes, on a very hot day when Granny Ma walks to the mailbox and says “But where do I enter my password?” she leaves bloody smears on the fence gate and her butterfly-print smock.
Lolly sits behind Granny Ma in the kitchen, where she’s coaxed the elderly woman to their old spinning bar chair. Lolly is on the counter, feet braced under the stool to keep Granny Ma from spinning around. The kitchen is filled with feeble squeaking and Granny Ma’s wheezy mouth breathing.
Lolly rubs the ointment into Granny Ma’s back. The ointment used to smell like baby powder and Vaseline but now it just smells like Granny Ma. Stray dry flakes of her stick to the cream in the bottle every time Lolly dips her hand in, so that the upper rim is crusted with bits of dead skin.
Granny Ma is muttering something either vulgar or about a poodle. The fuzzy, neon-pink bath towel Lolly wrapped around the elderly woman fell to the floor immediately after it was situated. Sometimes Granny Ma tries to reach for it with her toes, even though it’s around a meter away. The light coming through the kitchen blinds goes straight through the tips of Granny Ma’s overgrown, chipped, and yellow toenails.
Granny Ma starts trying to climb off the chair. “I’ve gotta see if Froggie messaged me back. I can’t make the post until Froggie lets me know.”
Lolly stretches out her legs so far her feet hit the kitchen island, boxing in Granny Ma. “You can’t, Granny. The wifi’s down.”
Lolly doesn’t understand what she herself is saying, just repeats what her mother’s told her to say in these situations.
Granny Ma freezes. She starts shaking and before she can crumple to the floor, Lolly adds, “Uncle AJ’s rebooting the modem.”
“Oh, that’s all right then.”
Granny Ma climbs back on the stool. Lolly begins on her flaky shoulders as the elderly woman starts talking about changing her “URL” and “annoying anons.” It’s normal, nonsensical Granny Ma talk and Lolly pays it no mind. When she’s done with the skin ointment, she hooks Granny Ma’s smock over her head and releases her. Too late Lolly realizes she put the smock on backward—not the first time she’s made this mistake—but Granny Ma’s already shuffled to her spot in the living room. She pulls out her thin metal book with the half-eaten fruit on the back and opens it sideways, immediately bashing away at the array of buttons on the last page. Granny Ma calls it her “notebook” and Lolly really doesn’t know—or care—much about it beyond that.
After soaping her hands to near extinction, Lolly opens a tin of chickpeas and grabs a plastic fork from the kitchen drawer. On the back deck she can still hear Granny Ma’s insistent clicking through the screen door. Moths are flitting around the bug zapper, its red light showing through their wings in a way that make the wings look invisible, like the moths are just bodies. Little maggot bodies, levitating worms, ticks, gnats crawling through the air.
A fly buzzes and Lolly smacks her neck even though the sound is closer to her brow.
Sitting in the broken green lawn chair, next to the bug zapper, Lolly digs into her chickpeas and ignores the hum of a dying engine out front. A minute later and her mother comes around the back, face and neck and arms bright pink. When she flaps the neck of her palm tree graphic T-shirt, Lolly sees that her shoulders are a blinding white next to the burned flesh.
“Ma done up?” her mother asks, and Lolly nods, and her mother rubs her neck and watches the bug zapper. She says, “Tucker’s truck broke down halfway from the farm, load of cows in the trailer. Didn’t make a sound. Like they weren’t there at all. Asked Tucker, after it was done, fixed the engine, changed his tire to boot, ran it over a nail he said. Where’d he find a nail strong enough to break that kinda muscle? Asked Tucker, what’s back in the trailer? Tucker said: cows. Not one moo. Not a single moo. Coulda been an empty trailer, or they coulda all been dead. Said, Tucker, you outta check they ain’t all dead back there.”
“Where was he taking ’em?”
“Macy’s Burgers. He wanted one fifty for ’em, each, but he said Macy sweet-talked him down to one oh five. That Macy.”
“Yeah. That Macy.”
Lolly’s mother sits on the back steps and leans her head against the porch, still watching the zapper. “Did you catch the forecast?”
Lolly shakes her head.
“S’posed to be a storm. This Saturday.”
Lolly’s starting to find it really hard not to look down at the base of the bug zapper, where the ground that’s dry and cracked as Granny Ma’s skin is covered in blackened bug husks.
Friday afternoon Lolly ties up her hair off her neck with an elastic band that’s lost most of its elasticity. Her messy bun flops down off her head the moment she lets it go, unraveling just like the elastic band, but Lolly’s used to it. The sweaty stickiness of her half-undone bun against her neck has gotten to be something of a comfort.
On her way out back, Lolly finds Granny Ma leaning against the windowsill, glaring outside.
“I hate the desert background,” Granny Ma says. “Why won’t it change to the waterfall? I’ve changed it three times already but it never saves. And my screensaver, that’s broken for sure. It just falls asleep eventually instead. No shooting stars. I need to go to Future Shop.”
Lolly leaves Granny Ma to fuss over their view of the barren landscape. Thunderous hammering fills the house, making the faded family photographs swing sideways on the wall. Lolly doesn’t fix any of them, or even pick up the one that falls. It’s Granny Ma’s wedding picture, featuring a beaming fat-faced girl with a hot pink veil slung back over her brown and purple curls. She’s holding up a shinier version of her battered notebook, and the blank page opposite the keyboard shows the pixelated face of Lolly’s late grandpa. The quality of his image is so bad Lolly can’t make out the color of his eyes, but somehow she can still make out the abundance of pimples on his forehead.
Lolly doesn’t like looking at Granny Ma’s wedding picture, but then she doesn’t like looking at any of the family pictures. They’re full of weird objects and gestures and clothing, and only ever feature people who are dead or three-quarters of the way there.
Lolly finds her mother on the front deck, wearing her vaulting stallion graphic tee, which already has sweat stains at the back and armpits. There are two rusted nails sticking out of her lips like she’s some kind of bucktoothed vampire. Spotting Lolly, she pauses in hammering and tilts her head to the other end of the board she’s nailing over the porch window. Taking the cue, Lolly goes to hold up the board as her mother plucks out a fang.
They’ve got half the front of the house boarded up before Lolly’s mother says, “No school today, huh?”
“Storm tomorrow,” Lolly replies, and her mother just nods. A half hour later, when the only working school bus in town trundles past Lolly’s house, she and her mother both ignore it.
“No calls today?” Lolly asks as they grab their gear and head around back.
“Plenty. Couldn’t take ’em all. Had to get this done. Folks getting out of town, y’know?”
“No point in that,” Lolly mutters.
“Plenty o’ point. With a storm coming—”
“How many calls didya take?”
Lolly’s mother drops the toolbox on the back porch with a rattle and a bang. Inside, Granny Ma shrieks, “Keep it down! This doesn’t have subtitles and the accents are heavy!”
Lolly and her mother go to the shed for more boards. They carry two apiece, one under each arm, and Lolly can feel the splinters planting in her flesh. She starts to count them, then starts to count the number of hammer swings it takes to get in a nail, then starts to count the more violent bzzzts of the zapper. Anything but counting the numbers of boards and windows.
“Macy’s gone,” Lolly’s mother says. “Left early this morning, ’fore Burgers was supposed to open. Angry line of folk who didn’t know. Saw ’em on my way back from my second job. Macy packed up, left town, gonna give it a go somewhere else. Somewhere more lucrative.”
“Sounds like a Macy word. You talked to her?”
“She had me look at her truck this morning. Early call, first one. She couldn’t hide it, what she was doing, with a truck that size. She told me, matter-of-fact-like. She told me, ‘You should leave too, before the escape window closes. Take that nice daughter of yours and get out.’”
“Macy didn’t call me ‘nice.’”
Lolly’s mother steps back to assess the house, pursing her lips as she eyes the windows and boards. When they return to work, they start spacing out the boards a bit more, using one fewer for each window, though Lolly’s mother never says that’s what they’re doing, and Lolly doesn’t ask.
“Tucker’s gone too,” Lolly’s mother says. “Dropped by his farm to get the other half I’m due for the tire. He cleared out. Left half the animals. Didn’t feed them or nothing. Took most of the food, or maybe someone else did. Wouldn’t be surprised that the looting’s started. He and Macy, they probably went together, I was thinking. I thought, maybe there really weren’t any cows in that truck. Maybe he was takin’ Macy’s stuff for her, gettin’ ready to clear out. Wouldn’t be surprised. Bet Macy hooked him into it. Tucker’s always been a soft one for a savvy business lady, and no one ’round here was ever much savvier than that Macy. Oh boy, that Macy.”
“That Macy,” Lolly agrees.
That night, Lolly tucks Granny Ma into bed and gets a claw around the wrist for her troubles.
“I lost four followers today,” Granny Ma hisses, eyes round as the cap of her ointment jar.
“You’ll find ’em.”
“But I just posted the regular stuff. Unless . . . could it be the giraffe I reblogged? But Froggie told me that was funny.”
“It’s funny.” Lolly makes the motion of patting Granny Ma’s head reassuringly, but doesn’t actually do it. She’s already rinsed her hands and she doesn’t want to get them all flaky again.
Granny Ma’s still mumbling into the darkness when Lolly crawls into her own bed. She falls asleep to whispers of “Maybe I shouldn’t put her on my Follow Forever list.”
The next morning the wind whips the sand and grit about more than normal. Lolly puts on a pair of red-rimmed sunglasses to keep the flying bits from getting in her eyes.
The screen door snaps open behind her and her mother hollers, “What’re you doing?!”
“Going to work,” Lolly calls back. “Boss’ll dock me if I don’t.”
“There’s a storm! Store’ll be closed!”
Lolly keeps on walking down the drive. She hears her mother running, rubber sandals slapping on the packed dirt. “Lolly!”
“Forecast’s usually wrong anyway. Haven’t had a storm for years. Boss’ll expect me to be there.”
“Just stay home today, Lolly. Please. If the storm does come, if it does you won’t want to be out in it. I don’t want you out in it. Couldn’t bear that.”
Lolly doesn’t feel anxious, for herself or her mother or the storm. She knows staying home will give her a stomachache, because she’ll sit around smelling Granny Ma’s rotting flesh and rotting ointment and the house will creak and squeak with every breath of air. But when her mother’s face and shoulders are covered in smears of burn cream that haven’t been rubbed in properly, Lolly knows she’ll cave to the smallest request, because her mother doesn’t even take the time to check and see if the cream’s rubbed in, and Lolly won’t bother to tell her it isn’t.
The storm hits while they’re upstairs, watching from the window. It comes in bits first, stragglers, slogging in sloppy strides down the road. Then the wave hits, and Lolly’s mother’s back goes rigid and she steps away from the window, prompting Lolly to do the same.
The storm is of hundreds this time around, all dressed in ragged, ripped clothing, crusted with dirt and mud and soot and blood and Lolly doesn’t know what else. Their skin isn’t the right color and it’s falling off, like most of them, like every part of them if you look too closely. But even if they were at her doorstep, Lolly wouldn’t look too closely. She wouldn’t look at all.
“The storm spreads the disease,” Lolly’s kindergarten teacher told them, five eager, chubby faces who’d never seen a storm. “They spread the disease sometimes just by breathing the same air. And when you catch it, all you’ll want to do is spread the disease too, and you’ll become a part of the storm.”
Lolly’s grade three teacher told those same five faces, starting to grow leaner, but not an ounce meaner, “There was a cure for the disease, a long, long time ago. But what it did, it cured some, and it made others all the more sick, and it made them into a part of the storm. It was the cure of the old scientists who created the storm.”
“Some, not many, are immune,” Lolly’s grade six teacher told two haunted faces, eight months after the first storm in a decade. “The storm doesn’t like the immune, and if you don’t catch the disease fast enough, something in their dead brains will click to life long enough to say ‘this one isn’t getting sick’ and then the storm will overtake you, because if it can’t have you, it won’t leave you breathing.”
The storm continues, wave after wave, trudging down the road, never the drive. The day fades, and for a while the sky is bloody and the road is quiet. Then, as night falls, another wave hits and Granny Ma announces: “I forgot my notebook.”
Lolly and her mother try to ignore her, but she persists: “I need it. I need to check and see if Froggie’s unfollowed me after I deleted her comment on my post.”
“Not now, Ma.”
“I need to check. I need to know. I need to talk to Froggie!”
“The wifi’s down,” Lolly says, attempting to dissuade Granny Ma. But the old woman ignores her, talks over her, voice going shrill.
“Just go get it then, Ma. Go get it.”
Granny Ma clamps her mouth shut and shuffles into the hall. Lolly stares at her mother, who won’t look away from the window.
“It’s safer,” her mother says. “They might hear her if she stayed shouting. They won’t smell her. She smells too much like them. Safer.”
Five minutes pass. Ten minutes. Granny Ma doesn’t come back up and Lolly starts scratching at her peeling sunburn. She’s watching over her mother’s shoulder when a part of the storm turns down their drive.
Immediately, Lolly’s mother opens the window.
“What’re you doing?” Lolly whispers.
“The roof. We’re getting on the roof.”
“But the boards—”
“But Granny Ma—”
Lolly eases herself onto the sill, then over it until she finds purchase on the overhang above their porch. The roof slopes to her left, so that she can climb to the flat top of the roof. There’s not room to walk over, so she carefully slides one foot along the overhang, then the other, still gripping the sill.
When she’s cleared the sill and her mother doesn’t follow, Lolly glances back at her.
“You get up,” her mother says, “and I’ll get Ma.”
Lolly’s mother’s gone in an instant, and Lolly continues easing along the overhang, because below her the storm is getting closer and she can already smell them. If the scent gets too strong, she’s afraid she’ll look, and she doesn’t want to look.
On the top of the roof, Lolly lies on her back, staring up at the night sky. The stars aren’t shooting like Granny Ma wanted. They never are. But they’re there, and they’re more than blackened husks on the ground.
Lolly wonders if her boss had someone fill her shift. If it was the woman, or the boy, or maybe both of them. She wonders if her boss was ever going to actually marry the woman, and if so, if she would have had Lolly fired. Lolly’s pretty confident that’s what would have happened, unless the boy and his adolescent crush got a say in the matter. Lolly thinks maybe that could have saved her job for a little while, but she doesn’t care either way, not because she’s up on a roof with a storm underneath her, but because it was a really shitty job. She’d sometimes daydream about going to work for Macy instead, because then she might be able to slip a few free hamburgers or smoothies.
That wouldn’t happen now, or maybe ever. Maybe they’d never have a burger joint again, all thanks to Macy. That Macy.
“The Weather” copyright © 2016 by Caighlan Smith
Art copyright © 2016 by Keith Negley