Ann emptied her purse onto the bedspread and poked through the coins. Ninety-seven cents. A Barbie doll cost three dollars. She sighed. “I’ll never earn enough.”
Tree branches scraped against the window, and Ann flinched, her pulse jumping. “It’s just wind,” she said, to calm herself. “You’re ten years old. Too old to be scared of tornadoes.”
But she was. Had been, ever since she’d first watched The Wizard of Oz on television. That was six years ago, in 1956. The same year her family moved to Newton, Kansas, in the heart of Tornado Alley.
Mom rapped at the door, baby Tim on her hip. “Ann, the Hermansons just called: they need a babysitter. Nancy’s at the Millers’ but they said you’d do.”
Leave the house in this weather? “I’m kind of busy.”
“They’ll pay twenty-five cents an hour.”
Ann studied her little pile of coins. Twenty-five cents an hour would add up fast, but… “What if there’s a tornado?”
Mom laughed. “There’s never been a tornado in Newton, honey.”
Ten minutes later, Ann rang the Hermansons’ bell. Mr. Hermanson opened the door, adjusting his hat. “Just keep them busy, Ann. We’ll be back before supper.” They dashed for their car, strands of hair whipping around Mrs. Hermanson’s head. Her stylish bouffant was already ruined.
Ann shut the door and turned to the kids. Joey, not yet two, was happily stacking wooden blocks. Five-year-old Dixie, however, stood with hands on hips. Uh-oh.
“Hi, Dix,” Ann said hopefully. “Want to play dolls?”
“How about jacks?”
“Um. I could show you a new yo-yo trick?”
Ann rolled her eyes. All big sisters were impossible. “Then what should we do?”
“I wanna play kick-the-can.”
Both kids stared at her.
Taking a deep breath, Ann lowered her voice. “It’s too windy. We have to stay inside.”
Dixie’s eyebrows pulled together, and Ann cast about for a way to diffuse the coming tantrum. The Hermansons didn’t have a television, but there were newspapers on the table. And—thank goodness!—a familiar plastic egg.
Soon Dixie was perched over the funny pages, squashing Silly Putty over Charlie Brown’s face. Ann showed her how to peel it off so the picture transferred, and she squealed with delight. Relieved, Ann settled in with Joey and his blocks.
Until lightning flashed. Ann jerked, knocking their tower down. Why was the room so dark? It was only—she squinted at the clock—6 pm. Wiping sweating palms on her shorts, Ann got up and switched on the radio.
“ – tornado heading directly for Newton. Seek shelter now – ”
Ann clicked the radio off. A tornado. But tornadoes never came to Newton! Crazy laughter bubbled up in Ann’s throat, but she choked it down. They’d be OK. They just had to get underground. “Where’s your cellar?”
Dixie looked up from the paper, forehead wrinkling. “Don’t have one.”
No cellar? Why would you live in Tornado Alley without one? “My house,” Ann said. “I’ll call my mom.” She snatched up the phone. No dial tone. The wind must have knocked the lines down. Mom wouldn’t know to come get them. The only way to reach the cellar was to go out into the storm alone.
Ann’s legs turned to string. She slid down the wall, panic flapping in her gut. She couldn’t. She couldn’t go out there alone.
Something crashed against the side of the house. “I’m scared,” Dixie said, and Joey whimpered.
Ann met their wide eyes. She wasn’t alone: she had the kids. And they needed her to do something.
Thunder boomed, launching Ann to her feet. “Come on,” she said, and hustled them out the door.
Up and down the street, people ran for shelter. Leaves and litter sailed through the air as purple-green clouds roiled above. Scooping Joey up, Ann clutched Dixie’s hand and pelted towards home. Her gum-wrapper necklace, folded from a winter’s worth of Bazooka, tore free and disappeared.
Half a block. Ann glanced at the sky. Not a tornado. Tornadoes. There were twisters all around them, demonic fingers reaching for the town. Dixie screamed. Ann ran faster, gasping for breath, the tang of ozone filling her lungs.
Then she was stumbling up the steps as her front door burst open. “Downstairs,” Mom cried, “hurry!”
They reached the cellar. The air grew heavy and still. Then wind struck with new fury. Glass shattered somewhere upstairs. Mom clutched Tim to her chest, rocking back and forth as the baby sobbed. Joey’s lip trembled and Dixie began to snuffle. Ann wanted to cry too, but she couldn’t. She was ten years old.
Old enough to be brave.
Ignoring her wobbly knees, Ann pulled the kids into the center of the room. “Who cares about a little wind?” she said. “We’re having a dance party. Let’s twist again,” she sang, showing them how to swivel. Joey started shaking his bottom, and Ann laughed so hard she forgot to be scared.
The storm passed. When the Hermansons arrived, Ann was reading while Joey and Dixie curled against her, sound asleep.
“Here,” said Mr. Hermanson, as his wife gathered the children into her arms. “You earned it.”
Ann looked at what he’d given her and grinned. Seventy-five cents for babysitting. And a $10 tip.
Originally published in the anthology Formation (2010), this story is inspired by a family legend—the day tornadoes hit while my mom was babysitting. I took a few liberties with the details, but the tale is firmly rooted in fact. Dozens of tornadoes really did circle Newton, Kansas, on May 24, 1962. Mom really did have to rush the kids to safety. And yes, Barbie dolls really did cost $3 back then. I still have the one my mom bought with her $10 tip.