“Under the System” by Adrian Van Young

Well hi there, folks!

It’s your friendly neighborhood meteorologist Stuart Smalls here, checking in from the WRAL Weather Center downtown with a few updates on that big, nasty storm system everyone’s been talking about. Now remember, folks, these reports don’t control the weather, they only predict it, but current models show this storm with the potential to produce 60 mph gusts, hail more than an inch in diameter, flash flooding in low lying areas and possible supercell thunderstorms.


See this animation here? See this cloud of swirling red?

Everyone should have a plan. I’ll go ahead and share mine with you!

After I went to the store for supplies, I spent the day getting my property ready. I masking-taped cardboard to cover my windows, I trimmed my trees and bagged my bushes. I took in everything outside that the wind could pick up and slam into my house, even though lots of it, Natalie’s things, I’d put into storage or given away. I charged my devices: computer and cellphone. Readied my flashlights and non-perishables. I leaned a fire-ax near my door and then I checked it all again.

* * *

Well, folks, it’s been a tense few hours as we wait for this system to pass overhead, but now that it has we’re all somewhat confused?

See, our WRAL radar, which is 99.98% on the nose, recorded the storm passing into our county as models predicted right down to the minute, but still there’s not a drop of rain. The sky is an unclouded bowl.  It’s eerily calm, folks, but look at your screens, you can still see the shape of that storm system hovering.

I passed the time shut in my house, the light barely filtering in through the cardboard; it looked like my palm with a flashlight held to it, like my late daughter Natalie’s palm (miss you, sweetie!) when we would shelter in her forts in the dim of the living room, some rainy day.

Now, in my living room, tracking the storm, I heard a light knock on the door.

I got up.

* * *

When I told you folks stay off the roadways, I meant it.

But here I am now in the heart of downtown and people are out here all over the place, in cars and on foot, and they aren’t acting right. They’re holding their heads in their hands, yelling hoarsely. Some of them are on their knees.

Other folks are in a hurry! A bunch are looting Toy Polloi, the front window shattered across the sidewalk, people stumbling vacantly over the threshold with princess wands and super-soakers. Another bunch at Sweets & Sundry, their arms overflowing with chocolates, jawbreakers. There’ve been some reports of these grave desecrations? Headstones toppled, plaques uprooted. And I’m only getting this now folks, but yeesh, I hear it’s mostly graves of kids.

Let’s see what these folks have to say for themselves!

“Hey, Mister Cox, how you weathering the storm?”

[shoves microphone at Mister Cox]

“Weathering, Stu? I’m great! So great! Our Bernie came back from the grave” [checking watch] “forty-five minutes or so ago now? A little grey, but still our Bernie, hungry as a Holstein ox. You think they got weight training in the beyond?

“Didn’t have too much food in the fridge. Gotta shop!”

* * *

I should probably tell you folks something important: my Natalie also returned with the storm.

When I opened the door, she was there on the steps. She didn’t even look too bad! Or not like I’d thought she’d look, dead for eight months of a painful and fast-acting brain inflammation, which then did its work on my marriage as well, insufficient to her absence. She made a sound inside her throat, not words, just this rasping, like she’d lost her voice. Like she’d come home from school with strep throat—yet again!

Daaaayheee,” she said to me over and over.

I fell down weeping at her feet.

* * *

We’re getting a feed from our brave weather chopper!

You can see for yourselves not a whole lot is different from what we’re seeing on the ground but notice that dark, sort of spiderweb pattern, leading away from our four cemeteries?

Yes that’s what you think it is, folks! Graveyard earth, which our town’s risen children have dragged from death with them in more or less the same circumference as the storm system hovering over us now.

Predictably, there are some stragglers. Little kids in just heartbreaking states of decay or handicapped by how they died propelling themselves toward the homes they’ve been missing. Someone’s going to be surprised!

* * *

You wouldn’t think a town like ours could have so many dead kids in it but anyone who’s had one knows we don’t like to discuss our dead children aloud.

Bernie Cox, Natalie Smalls, Lorelei St. Clair, Mabel Washburn—I’ll stop there.

It’s painful, folks, but you knew that. The real thing makes the names seem silly.

* * *

If you’ll take a look at our radar agai—

If you’ll take a look, fol—

If you’ll take a look—sorry, we’re having some technical glitches !—you’ll notice that swirling red mass fading some. Good news: that means the system’s clearing. Dead kids with no one waiting for them are already shambling back toward the graveyards where they tunnel like grave beetles into the sod.

Other than that, not much new to report. A lot less people on the streets.

There have been a number of soul-wrenching screams. Occasional gunshots and that’s been alarming!

Some folks have smeared animal’s blood on their doors like the old Bible story that scared us as kids in hopes that re-death will pass over their houses. While others are queued in the town’s cemeteries, advancing toward sepulchers high on a hill where they solemnly take a communion of grave dirt, dry-retching on grit and the spoors of decay.

* * *

Since I saw that, I’ve been inside.

I made my girl her favorite dinner, chicken nuggets and peas, applesauce on the side; she only ate a couple bites. Fudge caramel ice cream, of course, for dessert. Then I drew her up a bath, which honestly, folks, I had sort of been dreading. Two baths, though, were necessary—the first to get off all that dirt, the second one, hotter, for her to relax in. Clean from the bath she still had her same smell: strawberries with notes of soap. I put her in PJs and straight into bed.

When I snuggled against her, she said it again: “Daaaayheeeee, Daaaayheeee.”

That’s her new nickname for me.

I could’ve called Susan, of course, to drive down from where she lives three counties over but I didn’t call Susan and now I know why: I couldn’t find the strength to share.

So many of you cooked us food, sent us cards. For that, I’m super, really grateful!

Now it’s morning. I’m making my little girl breakfast.

I haven’t checked the radar yet. Truth is, folks, I can’t bear to because I’m afraid what I’ll find if I do: that this system we’re under has finally passed. That my daughter and all of our daughters and sons will have to go back to the place where they came from, a wrongness that only a freak of the weather like these skies above us can ever set right.

Adrian Van Young (adrianvanyoung.com) is the author of Shadows in Summerland and The Man Who Noticed Everything. His work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Electric Lit’s Recommended Reading, Conjunctions, Granta, Slate, The Believer and The New Yorker, among others. He lives in New Orleans. This story is dedicated to his creative writing students at St. Martin’s Episcopal, who helped him iron out some kinks.

At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

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