The sun seemed to rise early, highlighting the tiny frost crystals hovering in the air and on the long blades of grass that covered the soft hills, remnants of last night's mist. Helen didn't pay it much attention- she was too busy mucking out stalls and anyway the sun would have to be in the air a bit longer before she'd be able to take off the gloves that were the only thing keeping her fingers from going numb. She did glance out the barn door for a moment, just to check and see if the long driveway leading up to the house was still empty. It was.
Most summer mornings had begun like this so far. Life after graduating from her senior year of high school was proving to be just as dull as it had been before, though she wasn't sure what she'd been expecting. A parade, welcoming her to the wonderful new world of adulthood? Helen laughed at herself, bending down to scoop up another shovel-full of manure. Yeah. Adulthood. Real glamorous.
A weight collided with her leg and she gasped in pain as tiny claws punctured her jeans. "Lionel!" she scolded, straightening up and attempting to balance the full shovel in one hand while fending off her attack-cat with the other. Lionel refused to be moved- eyes bulging, ears back, he hissed and swiped at her hand as she pushed at him, catching his claws in her glove in a way that would have definitely drawn blood if the glove hadn't been there. She recoiled and he took the opportunity to climb higher, wrapping himself around her knee.
"Lionel- get- off!" Helen said, abandoning the shovel and grabbing him with both hands, prying him away from her jeans as he clung to them, dragging the tips of his claws across her leg. She grimaced and tossed him into the fresh hay of the next stall over. He landed on his feet and immediately disappeared under the feedbox, making odd moaning sounds deep in his throat like some kind of wild thing. Helen bent down to look at him, half afraid that he might jump out and attack her face, but he was busy pressing himself into the straw and ignored her.
"Fine," she huffed. "Stay down there." She went back to work, picking up her shovel and attacking the second stall with a vengeance, her neutral mood turned suddenly foul by the assault. She was nearly done when the silence was disturbed by a dull thump, as though something large and soft had hit the side of the barn. She glanced outside and- all at once- the long blades of grass were swept to the ground as though smashed by a giant hand and the air seemed to explode.
She screamed, dropping the shovel and clinging to the side of the stall, trying to cover her ears as the world screamed with her, filling with dust and debris and heat and the horrible, violent roaring of a wind that battered her, tearing at her hair and the loose sides of her jacket; beneath her fingers she felt the wooden wall shudder as the barn heaved to one side, vibrating under the assault.
Without warning, the wind was gone. For one wild moment Helen thought she'd gone deaf but then she heard the horses screaming in the pasture and pushed herself out of the stall, stumbling through the dusty haze of the barn aisle and almost running into the side of the door. Beyond the barn the dust was dissipating faster and she could see the shapes of Jett and Mayfly rearing and pawing at the air, wild with panic.
"Whoa, steady!" she called out, coughing midway through. The dust was everywhere- in her hair, in her nose, down the back of her neck behind her collar- and she took off a glove and rubbed at her mouth, her hand appearing oddly white and clean against the brown of her dirty wrist. The horses noticed her and galloped over to the fence, stopping a safe distance away and prancing in fright, eyes rolling as they whinnied to each other. In the distance she could hear more of the same, animals in all the surrounding farms calling to each other in confusion and fear, a chorus of bleating and neighing and mooing punctuated by human voices, everyone crying out at once.
"Whoa," she tried again, walking to the gate and opening it, hands up and palms out as Jett and Mayfly watched, the smaller, older mare hiding behind the middle-aged stallion. "It's okay, it's okay," she murmured, stepping forward slowly, calmly. Nonsense words and phrases came to her mind, words that made no sense, things like 'fine' and 'over' and 'gone', but she said them anyway, hoping aloud. They stared suspiciously, unconvinced by her tone, dancing away when she got too close. Three times she approached and three times they backed off, Jett half-rearing once in agitation, but every time she got a little closer. At last Mayfly relented, lowering her head and snorting at the ground, as if embarrassed by her outburst. Jett looked back at her then at Helen and flicked his ears forward, shaking his mane back and forth and causing his own miniature dust cloud. Helen laughed, ignoring the dust that settled on her arm as she patted the smooth, rounded line of his jaw. Mayfly nudged the pockets of Helen's jacket and Helen dutifully produced a carrot for both horses. They munched contentedly, reassured by the routine of their daily treat, and she turned to leave the field and saw Lionel sitting by the open gate, tail curled quite correctly around his feet as he waited for her, no longer looking like the crazed, feral creature that had attacked her leg as though it were a monstrous enemy.
"You look better," she commented. He stood when she closed the gate and followed her up the path that twisted around the trees that ringed the pasture and let out on the driveway. Derrick Pate was heading up toward her from the road, his normally dark hair clotted with dust, eyes red and watery. "You okay?" he called when he saw her. "We heard Jett and Mayfly screamin', thought you might be havin' some trouble."
"Fine, you?" she called back.
"The cows've gone nuts but Dad'n Reggie are calmin' them down. Mom's gone up the road to the Corelli's to check on them. Seen the cloud yet?"
Helen turned in the direction he was pointing and gasped. 'Cloud' didn't seem to cover this wall of towering gray, stretching from the flat horizon up to almost straight above, a gray that got darker and darker as it got nearer the ground, almost black.
"Denver," Derrick said solemnly. "Least we think so."
"What is it?" Helen asked, looking at him, almost afraid to hear what he might answer.
"Thinkin' bomb," he said. "Some kind of fire, maybe. Explosion." They stood quietly for a moment as that sank in and Derrick's eyes cut away from hers, looking at the ground. "Suppose you maybe better get into town. They'll have news there."
"Yeah," she said, turning away. Together they looked up, studying the massive stain across the western portion of the sky. Cloud, column of smoke, or something worse? Derrick mumbled a goodbye and left but Helen stood, transfixed, watching the line where the gray and the horizon met, wondering if she could just barely make out the red flicker of fire or if her eyes were playing tricks on her. A fire that big would spell trouble if it got out of the city and to the grasslands- it might still be spring but summer was coming on fast and the soft, shallow hills of northeastern Colorado would go up like a candle wick without too much encouragement. She walked to the house, still staring, and it wasn't until she stepped up onto the porch and her view of the sky was cut off that she could focus on ground level again.
The living room was coated in a fine layer of dust- she'd left the door cracked open and the wind had blown it back against the wall. Loose papers had been thrown up against the furniture and shoved into corners. She ignored most of it, only stopping to drag her notebook from under the ancient upright piano, where it had gotten wrapped around one of the pedals. None of the pages were missing, luckily, and she brushed the dust off and glanced at the page she'd been working on last night, a long list of numbers tallying the money she'd made at work for the past month and-a-half and how they matched up to the bills that were due. There was a bit of breathing room but not as much as there might have been if she hadn't bought a new dress from the city for graduation. Carissa had talked her into it and after all, why not? She was only going to graduate from high school once.
Aside from the dust and general disarray the wind had caused the house looked much the same as usual and Helen only stayed long enough to make sure all of the windows and doors were tightly shut and locked, just in case. Lionel followed her from room to room, on guard for any suspicious noises or dancing bits of light that needed dealing with, and even though he was just a house cat having him nearby made Helen feel better. She let him jump up into the truck when she opened the door, something she usually discouraged, and drove the short three miles into Grass Creek with one eye on the road and the other on the rear-view mirror where the wall of gray completely eclipsed the sky, looming ominously over miles and miles of flat farmland.
It seemed every parking space along Grass Creek's one main road was taken and Helen ended up parking behind the hardware store, waving at Mrs. Tilton as she walked past the plate glass front windows to the diner. Mrs. Tilton waved back, looking unsurprised to see her even though Helen wasn't due to come in for another hour. Today was an exception- everyone was in town today.
Penny's Diner was packed full when Helen pushed the door open, but the tinkling of the bell affixed to the door frame rang out loud and clear in the hushed silence. No one turned- every eye was on the TV that had been set up in one corner, showing grainy footage from a small local station of a row of skyscrapers silhouetted against their worst fear: the leaping, writhing flames of a fire gone out of control. Helen studied the skyscrapers automatically, expecting to see the familiar shapes of Republic Plaza, the Wells Fargo, and the Hyatt, but realized with a shock that she didn't recognize the burning city at all.