The wild horses spooked at the change in the weather. You watched them through your kitchen window, hands deep in suds, as they ran through the surf at the tideline. Sweat foamed in the long arcs of their swaybacks, and wet sand speckled their white coats. The muscles in their flanks flexed. After they crossed the beach, they ran through the swampy puddles where the sand ended, through the trees and back out again, the whites of their eyes rolling in their heads. The patter of the rain on your roof blocked out their huffs and whinnies, their panting. Although you lived near wild horses for your entire life, you knew almost nothing about their bodies and their lives, where they went when—as now—they disappeared behind your neighbor’s house.
Your phone pinged, so you dried your hands and unlocked the screen. When you saw it was Cortez, your heart beat faster. You took a deep breath.
you see this prediction? wild. wanna watch movies?
You set a timer for five minutes and took slow, deep breaths. When it pinged, you counted to thirty and texted back.
Haha sure. Got nothing else going on. Come over?
You stuffed dirty laundry into garbage bags, which you wedged under your bed. Crusted pans went into the oven. You showered, then sniffed your three cleanest shirts to find the least dirty one, a white V-neck, which you paired with tight jeans. Cortez took his time, and while you waited, you popped a cotton-candy-flavored CBD cartridge into your vape pen. Deep breath in, two, three; out, two, three. You flipped through social media and weather apps. On the radar, the incoming Event looked like a swarm of migrating birds.
on my way, Cortez replied.
You pressed the bubble containing his words until your reaction options appeared; you hovered over the heart before you chose the thumbs-up and switched back to RageRadar. Zigzag symbols clustered in the approach vector and skittered across the map as the numbers ticked upward. Your town appeared underneath the block of red; a warning banner flashed. Supercomputer algorithms sucked in loads of data points from acts of mass violence over the past twenty or thirty years to generate predictions. On some server farm, raw calculating power crunched the variables—time of year, sunlight percentage, wind speed, location, tenor of nationwide political discourse, and time since last local hate crime. Though they used the largest data set ever generated, the predictions of when and where an Event might occur were not perfectly reliable.
When it came to the predictions of an Event—simultaneous violence and severe weather—you played it safe, always. You avoided transit buses, outer highway lanes, grocery stores, plazas, arcades, malls, social clubs, American Legions, private parties, house parties, gas stations, department stores, outdoor music festivals, indoor symphonies, kindergartens, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, community colleges, universities, movie theaters, bowling alleys, dive bars, rodeos, sporting events, military bases, workplaces, nail salons, churches, temples, mosques, meditation centers, and public spaces generally.
The relationship between changes in pressure systems and the probability of a mass shooting was not well understood. Conspiracy theories abounded on the online forums you checked during idle periods behind the register at work. Some were run-of-the-mill: the federal government keeping citizens in line, aliens trying to kill off humankind, etcetera. Others constructed elaborate video exposés on the connection between chemtrails and manufactured weather. A synagogue shooting happened at the same time as a lightning storm three towns over. Bombs strapped under a bus seat exploded as a tornado spun up in a nearby field.
Your phone beeped.
about to leave now my bad
You sighed and locked it.
Next application cycle, you would apply to college, major in Quantum Computing, and impress Cortez enough that he might love you in the ways you wanted. Since you lived by yourself, and your brother was off somewhere cooking meth, the only person you told about your plans was Cortez. The brochure from the community college in the next town over lay on your kitchen table, the glossy surface catching the light.
“Yoo-hoo!” Cortez yelled after he let himself in. You told your landlord about the broken lock months ago. “Got snacks?”
“Uhhh,” you said. You considered your stale box of crackers and half-bunch of moldy grapes.
“Planning ahead,” Cortez said, flashing you a smile. “I just ate.”
He popped in Melancholia and settled himself on your couch. Each seat was dented in the middle from legions of vintage butts. You were careful to keep distance between you, lest Cortez think you were coming on to him, so you sprawled on the floor. As you reclined, you imitated the posture of Dunst’s character as she listened to her horses, to their worn, square teeth against mouthfuls of hay.
From your vantage point, you admired the curve of Cortez’s jaw, the lines of his arms beneath the sleeves of his shirt. When you looked at him this closely, something caught like lint in the back of your throat. You wanted him and you weren’t sure why. When you considered your desire, you felt jealousy, fear, and excitement.
Both your phones blared with an emergency alert. The prediction was upgraded to one hundred percent. Somewhere out there, someone was shooting to kill, though perhaps the severe weather borne of it—or made from it—or brought with it—would spare them.
“Here comes,” Cortez said.
“Let me know if you want me to keep you safe,” you said. Like a family dog, you had a strong protective instinct borne of loyalty.
“What, with your cosplay shield?”
“I’ll stand over you, holding it.”
Cortez rolled his eyes.
As the veil pooled around Kirsten Dunst where she lay in the swampy pond, the shape of her body sent tingles from the back of your head down the length of your spine. You sweated. You fantasized about being the one to hold the bouquet of lilies in your hands. About Cortez finding you there in the water and leaning over the edge to kiss you. You wondered whether all adults secretly wished they inhabited or were otherwise inside someone else.
“Aww yeah,” Cortez said. “See, she’s got it.”
“Nothing she can do,” you said. “Just trying to make peace with herself.”
“They don’t even have a chance. Hundred percent prediction,” he said. He ran his fingers back through his curly hair. “They know it’s coming, and she’s chill. I dig that.”
“Dig? That?” you said. You grinned. He blushed.
When the hail began, Cortez wedged himself in-between the couch cushions. Holding a large, square pillow above your head, you dashed out on the porch and snatched a piece the size of a baseball which immediately began to melt in your hand. Runnels of water trailed from the creases of your palm onto the floor.
On a field trip, your elementary school class visited a natural history museum. Prominently displayed in the collection were objects from the house of a woman who survived being hit by a meteor: her dented alarm clock, her floral-patterned couch with a hole through one of the arms, a segment of her ruined roof.
The intensity of the hail increased. Cortez moved under the table, which was still stacked with bills and crumpled chip bags. Although his forehead creased with worry, he flashed you two thumbs up. In that moment, he looked like a kid. You had grown up fast, moved out on your own, and figured out how to adult, while Cortez lived with his parents. When he played with danger, walking on the outside edge of the bridge above the river or touching the horse fence to see if it was on, he did so with the knowledge that whatever happened, his parents would fix it, whereas you worried about whether a bad nights’ sleep would cut down on your tips the next day.
Even if there were anything you felt ready to say to Cortez, the hail made it too loud to talk. You pulled the rest of the cushions off the couch and tented them over yourself. If this storm made you late on the rent, your landlord would throw you and all your shitty stuff out on the street, and you would have to beg someone, probably Cortez’s mom, for a place to sleep. The hail roared. The movie kept playing, though the sound of the weather drowned out the dialogue. The characters looked at each other with concern as they drank wine.
The roof and ceiling groaned above you, and bits of foam and dust shook down like a light snow. The hail ripped open the couch cushions and stuffing spilled out. This house had no basement, so there was no safer place to run. You closed your eyes and focused on your breathing.
When, at last, the hail reduced to a patter, your ears rang. When you peeked out from beneath the cushions, the credits were rolling across the screen. As you stood, plumes of dust fell from the folds of your clothing and the creases of your neck. In a few spots, piles of hail settled on the beige carpet. Your whole body hurt from the many tiny impacts. Already, the thin skin over your fingers was beginning to discolor, and you knew soon the pools of blood beneath your skin would turn blue and purple, then fade to green, orange, yellow. You were used to bruises. The ones from your last night at your dad's house were still fading on the backs of your thighs.
Cortez lay under what used to be the table. As you brushed splinters and debris from his face, he blinked, stunned. Part of the table had collapsed on him, so you wrapped your arms under his ribcage and tugged him free. You piled white clouds of stuffing behind his back and set him against the piece of furniture formerly known as the couch. An egg-sized lump rose from the side of his head. He rested the other side on your shoulder and you reached out to hold his hand. He murmured something indistinct, of which you caught only “I” and “You”. Your heart pounded hard, and you wondered whether he could hear it.
“What?” you said, wanting to make sure you heard him right before you said it back.
“I told you,” he said, and emitted a strained bark of laughter. You sighed. Together you rested awhile. Cortez took his hand from yours. You shrank back from him at first, and then he pulled you close. You surveyed the destruction of the walls and ceiling. Pretty bad, though still livable if you patched the holes with tarps and tape.
With your free hand, you pulled your phone out to check your social media feeds. If the hail was any indication, someone, somewhere, was grieving, or in that period before grief where the news is coming toward you as slow and steady as a rock rolling down a hill. The screen said no service. Relief washed over you. There was no way you would know, at least not yet, and neither would Cortez. Together you could stay here, a little longer, safe in your shared ignorance.
Cortez cuddled into the curve of your chest, right under your shoulder. You hesitated before you kissed the top of his head. Both of you were soaked in melted hail and nervous sweat, which stung as it ran over the scars on your chest. You sat there and held him long after one of your legs fell asleep, as his breath slowed, calmed, as the wild-horse flutter of his heart retreated to an even, steady rhythm. He lifted his face up to you, close, and looked into your eyes.
Emrys Donaldson is an Assistant Professor of English at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. Their work has recently appeared in TriQuarterly, Redivider, Passages North, and The Rupture, among other venues. Read more here.