5. Interlude: In Which Jeremiah Takes Charge

It took Jeremiah a little over an hour the next morning to figure out that Teddy was avoiding him in the most conspicuously passive-aggressive way possible. As soon as Jeremiah entered a room Teddy exited stage left, but only when his back was turned. Conversely, if he entered an empty room, two or three minutes later Teddy would walk through and sit down in the next room over. It was somehow both guilt-wracking and infuriating.

Dad, unfortunately, was unavailable for arbitration (let alone that “talk” Jeremiah knew he still had coming), having left long before Teddy got up. There was flash flooding in KaPow County and lightning had killed every emergency and non-emergency vehicle in the area. They needed all the help they could get. The phone call had woken Jeremiah – a light sleeper in the early predawn hours – and he’d gone out to the kitchen just in time for Dad to briefly explain, turn down his offer of help before he could actually voice it, then give him the universal watch-your-brother look.

Teddy had risen hours later, the world a deeper grey by nine than it had been just after sunrise. Though the lightning that had skirted Banner the night before was gone, the rain that had seemed to be pattering itself out on the windowpanes wasn’t letting up.

Jeremiah watched water slosh over the rain gutters above the kitchen window, listening to the radio. BASH had finally shut down the weather machine, but the storm had gathered real momentum and would have to play itself out. A state of emergency had been declared in KaPow, with at least two supers reportedly on site. No one on the radio had remembered to forecast the weather for their neighboring counties, let alone an insignificant town like Banner.

Just on the edge of his peripheral vision, Teddy walked through the kitchen and disappeared into the living room (again) and Jeremiah suddenly couldn’t take the inaction anymore. He picked up the phone to call Bill – find out how bad it was on his side of town – and realized, at the sound of nothing, that the phone was dead.

Jeremiah abruptly abandoned his decision to let Teddy come to him on his own terms. He strode into the living room, talking in a brusque voice before his little brother could jump up from the chair and dodge into another room. “I’m sorry,” he apologized bluntly. “I was an ass. I know that’s not good enough but we don’t have time to discuss it right now. Phone lines are down.”

Teddy discarded the argument like it hadn’t happened. “Grub?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Jeremiah answered. “I want to find out what’s going on.”

There was still that wrongness between them – both quiet on the short drive over to the diner – but Jeremiah didn’t try to puncture the silence, more immediate worries on his mind. It was hard to see the buildings in the sheeting rain, and they had to park far down the curb since the street in front of the diner was already packed with cars. There was no telling when The Grub had become the focal point of the town whenever disaster loomed, though “why” probably had a lot to do with the fact that people gathered around food no matter the circumstances.

“Gone,” Patrick was saying as Jeremiah entered, Teddy on his heels. The towel set in front of the door was already soaked, so Jeremiah shoved it out of the way with his foot, which squished and left a trail of muddy water in front of the door. This was going to be a mess to clean up later. The door jangled as it closed, but though Bill – followed shortly by Debbie – caught sight of who it was and made their way over to him, the rest of the room continued to watch the halfback. He spoke with something that was mostly disbelief written in his face. “Just…wiped out of existence. Like it was nothing.”

“Man, where have you been?” Bill demanded. “Phones went down an hour ago.”

“Just found out,” Jeremiah explained. He absently moved out of the way for Teddy, who’d spotted Ozzie (the only one of his friends who also had an older sibling – a sister, sitting across the room with her own friends), bee-lining for him as he shoved his poncho hood back. He hadn’t argued when Jeremiah had insisted he put it on, which said more about how well Teddy could read his big brother than Jeremiah knew. The eighteen-year-old jerked his head at Patrick. “What’s that about?”

“Flood took out their barn,” Debbie explained, moving into the space Teddy had just vacated. “Looks like their house is set far enough back, but the barn was built too close to the creek. Jumpjack—” she continued, naming one of the local rivers, “—is almost to the top of Cooley’s bridge.”

“We could be in for real trouble,” Gary interjected, having sidled up to the conversation.

There was a murmur of assent from an old man sitting at the bar, and one of the cheerleaders sitting next to him added, “This is the problem with these stupid weather villains. They start this crap, but nobody can actually stop it from becoming real weather and doing whatever it wants.”

The conversation started to spread out from their group, people chiming in with rumors or eye-witness accounts. So far the damage was mostly small, just trees and fences swept away; Patrick’s barn was the most significant casualty, if you didn’t count the phone lines.

Jeremiah took in the room, calculating the average age at about seventeen. They were mostly high schoolers, many of them from the football team and cheer squad (that was Brittany in the back, not making eye contact). The only adults were Gary and old Mr. Seeley at the bar, who seemed content to drink his coffee and make ominous predictions about where Banner was located in conjunction with at least three rivers, swollen well past their usual size.

Jeremiah came to terms with a couple of things as he listened to them all talk loudly over each other about what was going to happen and who was going to do something and did you see what Jumpjack had washed over the road? (Yeah man, this is why you don’t go swimming in New Jersey rivers.) First, that the old man’s forecast may have been dramatic, but it was also based on very true facts. Second, that the calamity over in KaPow County had called away every volunteer in the fire department, their local Hero Support chapter, and any adult left who could lift fifty pounds. Which meant that third, they had to do something because they were the last that Banner had.

“Listen up people,” he called out over the rumble of noise. “LISTEN UP.”

The last few conversations faded and they all turned to stare at him, standing with his back to the large front window. The sound of rain swallowed any fidgeting and Jeremiah was glad he hadn’t moved farther into the room. He didn’t have to crane his neck behind him to make sure he had everyone’s attention. “Mr. Seeley’s right: Banner’s in a flood zone. So we deal with it. What’s the highest point in town?”

There was silence for a moment as they struggled to shift into deal-with-it mode, and someone finally suggested, “The high school?”

“Fusions,” a girl in glasses countered, naming the local food processing plant. “It’s taller.”

“Fusions,” he agreed. They employed at least 70% of the town, which also made it a good choice. “And high school as backup. We’re not flooding yet, so let’s go door-to-door, get the moms and the little kids in one place in case we have to evacuate later. And the old folks,” he added. Mr. Seeley, who until now had looked comfortable letting someone else dictate terms, harrumphed. Jeremiah ignored him. “I want everyone with a car on this.”

“I’ll start on 1st,” Debbie volunteered, hand up, which got the rest of those with vehicles to parse out Banner by street. He would have to remember to thank her later for covering the details he hadn’t considered.

“And don’t drive over a puddle if you can’t see the bottom,” one of the farm kids added.

“Right,” he concurred, then went on. “As long as they’re old enough, I want everyone else to help sandbag. Don’t ask: tell them that’s what they’re doing. That’s you, Bill,” he said turning to face his best friend, who hesitated, then nodded at his sudden appointment, expression grim.

“Do we have sandbags?” one of his wide-receivers asked, recognizing that Bill’s assignment meant the football team would be fielding the frontline defense of Banner.

Jeremiah faltered without letting it show on his face, then remembered. “Firehouse.”

“You sure they didn’t take all the sandbags with them?” Brittany interjected coolly, having moved up to the front of the pack.

Jeremiah really did falter this time, because it was a good question from someone he kind of hadn’t wanted to talk to for the rest of the school year. He rallied. “No I’m not,” he admitted, “so I want you and some of your squad to track down as many burlap sacks as you can find. Check the stores – Grogans and Super Dupes – and…actually, just do a supply run. Grab all the sacks, radios, flashlights and…whatever else you think is necessary. Bring it back here.”

Steal it?” a voice asked incredulously.

Before Jeremiah could respond to this accusation, Brittany snapped, “You really think they’ll call it stealing when we’re trying to save this place? Use your head, moron.”

As that was the fastest way to close that argument, Jeremiah didn’t try to either soften her words or back them up by also pointing out that the sheriff was a good friend of his father’s. Martin – Jeff’s twenty-one year-old deputy – might not like it, but as he was basically their age and still acted like it, you could pretty much guarantee that he wouldn’t do anything to stop them. Jeremiah wondered where either of Banner’s lawmen were, but before he could voice the question, Patrick asked, “Where do we sandbag?”

“I’ll figure that out,” Bill volunteered. He glanced at Jeremiah, a wry you-owe-me-for-this grin on his face. “Jeff’s out with the phone people, but Martin’s still at the station. Or he was an hour and a half ago when my mother called. He should have an idea of where we should go. Or at least maps.”

“Good, now—”

“What’s ‘old enough’?” the girl in glasses asked, car keys in her hand.

“Pardon?” he asked.

“You said ‘old enough,’” she clarified. “Whoever’s ‘old enough’ has to help sandbag.”

Jeremiah really did hesitate this time. As far as he knew, Banner was currently populated almost entirely by moms, kids, and senior citizens, which meant they needed all hands on deck regardless of age. But as willing as he was to put anyone with a functioning pair to work, depending on how old they were that really wasn’t his call.

“Sixteen,” he finally decided. “Anyone—”

“Fourteen,” Teddy immediately countered. A few people parted to turn around and look at him, so Jeremiah got a good look at his face, set with willful determination.

Anyone,” he repeated, eyes locked on his little brother, “younger than that needs permission from their mom.”

“What if they don’t have a mom?” some pedantic idiot called from the back.

“Then they’re an orphan and nobody cares if they drown,” he retorted, annoyance getting the best of his better judgment. There were snickers from his guys, but before Jeremiah could answer more seriously (any guardian will do) Teddy piped up again. “What about me?”

“Since you’re under sixteen,” he answered mock-brightly, hoping that the come-on-Teddy-you’re-really-asking-me-this? was evident in his expression, “then obviously you need to go ask your mom if—”

“I’m pretty sure you are my mom,” he shot back.

Laughter broke the tension in the room and Jeremiah, both annoyed and amused, said, “Of course you’re helping out, Teddy. You’re with Bill until he says otherwise, and you will listen to everything he says.”

His best friend and his little brother plainly shared a sense of humor. They both saluted him, then caught each other doing the same thing and laughed. Jeremiah snorted.

“Say that a guy didn’t exactly get his mother’s permission,” Ozzie “postulated” before Banner’s star quarterback could continue, eyeing his sister over on the other side of the room and then pretending he hadn’t, “but he just started helping out anyways and—”

Jeremiah didn’t bother to keep the exasperation out of his voice this time. “Then for the love of Pete, don’t tell me. Anymore questions? No? Good,” he said before anyone could try. “Then get to it.”

#

But of course people did have more questions.

“Jeremiah,” Debbie called on the radio, “could you let everyone know that they should not cut through the Atrium parking lot? We just lost another car.” They’d lost their first at Fusions, simultaneously discovering that the road into the food processing plant had been washed out. “Everyone’s all right, Devin’s just mad about his Mazda.”

“Jeremiah, we don’t know what to do!” came another voice, right on her heels. “Mr. Dougray says he’ll leave when the rapture comes and no sooner.”

“Jeremiah,” cut in the cooler-than-normal tones of his ex-girlfriend, “could you tell whoever’s closest to the Hutchin’s farm to raid their barn? Mary says they’ve got empty grain bags we can use.”

Before he could respond to any of these, Teddy’s voice demanded, “Are you sure we should leave the Sunnyside folks where they are?”

He gave it a few seconds, but no one else chimed in so he began answering in order. “Will do, and could you send someone to check the Hutchin’s barn for spare bags? Leave him then. Message passed on, thanks.” He hesitated on the last one. They’d been back and forth on Sunnyside for the better part of the day. Though Cynthia Reynolds was out stalking the perimeter of every flood site in a matching raincoat and umbrella, many of the other residents had trouble even navigating their own rooms. “The nurse said it’s better if we don’t have to move them,” he finally decided, again. “We only need to hold out a few hours more.”

Unfortunately, he’d said the same thing a few hours earlier. Hopefully no one would spot the discrepancy. When his radio didn’t try to argue back, Jeremiah took just another moment to breathe, then picked up his sandbag for the third time and got back to work.

Nothing had stayed in the neat little box Jeremiah had presented to the crowd at The Grub. Though the rain had petered out hours ago and the sky had faded to a paltry grey, the neat, manageable line of sandbags that Jeremiah had envisioned as Banner’s main defense had fragmented throughout town. It was the most depressing thing in the world to create a barrier, only to break it down and move it elsewhere, but they’d done so again and again and again as the water shifted and they had to re-define their defensive lines for the fiftieth time. Things had improved once they’d started channeling water instead of damming it (a rooky mistake that Jeremiah already felt stupid over – but he’d berate himself later), about the time they’d figured out that what they were really dealing with was overflow from the efforts up in KaPow.

Nobody would be coming from KaPow. The disaster was still in full swing there, and the population much denser. Rumor had it that Claymation and Susan Star had joined the rescue efforts, and that there were at least a dozen people MIA. Banner was on its own.

An “Earth to Jeremiah!” from the radio cut into his thoughts. “Does anyone have a radio they could spare? Gordy needs one.”

“Talk to Brittany,” he said without bothering to figure out who that was. The last time he’d seen his ex, she’d been sitting behind the counter at The Grub, with a police radio in one hand and the air of someone who was born to do this in the way she held the other. The Queen Bee had been pronouncing judgment and passing out decrees since, demanding information and orchestrating pickups for everything from diapers to sand. Craig Pricker, Jeremiah knew, had already been in to see her, pissed because they’d commandeered all the sand from his ongoing home construction project. Brittany had simply leaned forward and told him, in the most dismissive I-am-the-cheerleading-CAPTAIN voice she had, “Well whatever.”

The absolute relish on her face at the time hadn’t made Jeremiah want her back, but it had almost made him choke in the middle of explaining their efforts thus far to Jeff. So that was at least one person who was enjoying herself.

Bill, for a moment, was another. Jeff had relieved him of his position shortly afterwards, and he’d acquiesced with greater relief than Jeremiah had expected. There were more adults now (conscripted during Deb’s door-to-door draft), but people were still deferring to Jeremiah, probably out of habit. He’d been redirecting questions for hours.

“Jeremiah,” Greg said, stepping into his path. He was a middle-aged man sporting a mustache left over from the 70s, looking fatter than he actually was in a black garbage bag with head and arm holes cut into it, courtesy of the Banner High cheerleading squad. “Water’s trying to break through the sandbags on fifth. We’re running low.”

Jeremiah didn’t stop to answer, just dodged him and jerked a thumb over his shoulder to where he knew the sheriff was talking to a mom and one of the retirees they’d roused out of their warm, dry homes. The old pensioners had proved invaluable, having the fisherman’s acquaintance with the local waterways. “Talk to Carmen. She’ll know where they’ve got spare bags. And let Jeff know about the flooding,” he added to Greg’s back, who nodded as he walked away.

“Jeremiah,” someone else said, tapping him on the shoulder. Fighting the temptation to drop the sandbag from his shoulder (it’d be a bear to pick up again), he turned to take in Mandy, a mom of three.  The evacuees had regrouped at the high school, leaving the young moms in charge there while the older moms bagged sand with what looked like half of the middle school and a quarter of the elementary. “Some of the kids are starting to get way too cold. I’d like to send a group back to the high school.”

“Sure thing,” he said, pulling out his radio, just keeping the bag balanced with his other hand. “Debbie, could you send a few cars—” he stopped, said, “Hold on,” into the radio, then asked Mandy, “How many?”

“Oh,” she said. “Well, how many cars can you spare?”

He handed the radio to her in answer, said, “Give it back to me once you’re done,” and went for a gap he could see in their wall, exchanging only a nod with Rick as they passed. The football team had stopped trying to show each other up hours ago, and were down to a dogged plod (pick up, walk over, set down; pick up, walk over, set down; rinse and repeat) that indicated both exhaustion and the weary knowledge that they had no choice but to keep going. Only Teddy, whose biggest problem was figuring out how to keep multiple sandbags balanced, still moved with the same energy he’d started with. Jeremiah hadn’t seen him in a while, but he could safely assume that he’d still look the same the next time he spotted him.

He was going for another sandbag, wondering more pointedly as time dragged on how long they’d have to keep this up, when Patrick tapped him on the shoulder with his walkie-talkie. He offered it to him. “Bill wants you.”

Jeremiah took it, eyeing the Mattel logo for a second. Apparently someone had thought to loot the toy store on Main. “Yeah, Bill,” he said with the tired patience of a teacher at the end of a long day.

“Uh…” Bill’s voice was hardly recognizable over the crappy connection, his tone impossible to read. “Jer, I need you over here.” Static ate the next few words, then, “—cting weird.”

“Who’s acting weird?” he asked, trying to figure out if he could pick up a sandbag one-handed. Maybe if he slid it off the truck bed onto his shoulder…

“Teddy,” came the answer. “He—” static, “—ved our bacon, but now he’s—” the crunching sound of a bad connection “—weird.”

Jeremiah forgot about the sandbag. For a second he wondered what he was doing with his hand on it. Then he remembered. Then he privately cursed himself because it was a stupidly pointless thing to be focused on. “Where are you?” he demanded.

“—at?”

“WHERE ARE YOU?”

“—unny—ide apart—”

Jeremiah shoved the walkie-talkie back at Patrick, who accepted it without a word but with his eyes locked on his captain’s face. Bill was repeating the name of the retirement complex, but Jeremiah had already gotten it. He turned away with an, “I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about” in his mouth, and his heart in his throat.

He walked, switched to a jog, and was running flat out in the space of five seconds.

Chest full of wires. Chest full of wires. The insult resonated through Jeremiah’s bones every time his feet hit pavement, because if a manmade lightning strike could shut down cars, could it shut down Teddy?

There was a small pileup of adults in the parking lot of Sunnyside, ranged around a truck only half-loaded with sandbags and unmistakably discussing something. As Bill wasn’t among them, Jeremiah only slowed enough to have one of them jerk his head backwards at the assisted-living facility and say, “Around the corner.”

He nodded in acknowledgment, and did not stop as another one shouted at his retreating back, “Seriously, Jeremiah, if your brother hadn’t been here—”

As he rounded the corner – letting the words cut off, knowing he was about to get the details directly – he slowed to take in Bill, standing at the mouth of what at first glance looked like a cave. It took another second, but he got it: the “cave” had been hollowed out of the ground directly beneath the apartment complex, the backend of which appeared to hang unsupported over nothing. Jeremiah had no idea how the building was still standing.

Bill took one look at his face, and both swore and apologized. “Ah, Jer, I’m sorry, not that kind of weird. I mean he’s acting like a thirteen-year-old girl on her first period.”

“I’m fine, Bill,” Teddy’s irritated voice interjected from the black hole that had formerly been the southeast corner of Sunnyside’s foundation. “And I am not acting like—don’t use that word!”

Jeremiah (letting out a relieved sigh he gave no voice to) suddenly understood. Teddy was holding up the building.

“Period,” Bill repeated cheerfully (his best friend clearly had too many sisters; Jeremiah did not now, nor would he ever, want to know what any thirteen-year-old acted like when she was…you know, but saying so would only make Bill pull out every gross, living-with-teenage-girls story he had in his repertoire. He’d smirk as he did it, as Jeremiah knew from experience), then continued, “So he keeps saying he’s fine—”

“Because I am!”

“—but he won’t let anyone in there,” he finished.

Jeremiah considered the dark mouth of the cavity, eyebrows furrowed, wondering what was wrong.

“I’m fine, Jer!” Teddy called out, correctly reading his silence.

“What happened?” he finally asked Bill.

Bill let out a huge breath. “Water carved out the ground under the foundation. We knew there was a stream going around the building in this direction, but it was so small that nobody thought—and we had so many other things to deal with—” he cut himself off, shaking his head. “It probably took hours, but no one was paying attention.”

A thought struck Jeremiah. Maybe that’s why Teddy had kept asking him about moving the Sunnyside residents, reacting to some subconscious warning. Maybe…

He was abruptly aware of the inadequacy of their yearly power checkups. They still didn’t really understand how his brain processed information.

“Anyways,” Bill went on, “out of nowhere Teddy goes busting past me at 34 miles per hour—” he also knew about that particular experiment “—and about thirty seconds after that I track him down to where he disappeared to. Thirty seconds later I’m still standing here, taking in this big, black hole and trying to figure out how the corner of Sunnyside is levitating, when suddenly I cotton on to the fact that Teddy just made himself a pillar in the colosseum.” He let out a breath, still visibly shaken by the realization of what Teddy had prevented, and just as impressed. Bill sounded proud when he added, “I still don’t know how he knew to get here in time.”

“Heard it,” Teddy explained, voice bouncing strangely from under the ground, simultaneously muffled by mud and echoing off concrete. “Didn’t know what it was, but all of a sudden I could see the building start to shift out of balance and I knew. So I got over here.”

“How heroic of you,” Bill said, laughing at the modesty of the words, but Jeremiah just demanded of the hole, “Okay, but what’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Teddy snapped back.

“Something’s wrong,” he decided, not liking his tone. He should be bragging about his actions, describing the blow-by-blow. Was he worried? Scared? Hurt? It wasn’t like him to be stoic.

“I’m fine, Jer.”

“What’s wrong with you?” he demanded, again.

Teddy’s voice shot up in volume. “I said I’M FINE.”

“You are definitely not ‘FINE,” he corrected his little brother, shooting the word back at him. Bill stood silently at Jeremiah’s shoulder, smile gone. “I’m coming—”

“DON’T BOTHER, INVINCIBLE KID MADE OF WIRES HERE, I COULDN’T POSSIBLY—”

That smarted. As well it should. But just because he’d blown it with Teddy one time in his life did not mean the kid got to start ignoring him and pretending that…ugh, this was ridiculous, obviously something was wrong and—

He cut off Teddy’s sarcastic rejoinder, and discovered that he was losing control of his temper. “Now I know there’s something wrong with you. I’m coming in whether or not you—”

“YOU DON’T HAVE ANY RIGHT—”

“AND WHEN HAS THAT EVER STOPPED ME?” he shouted back, unaware of Bill looking between his face and Teddy’s voice (trying to figure out just what in the world was wrong with everybody), because as far as Jeremiah was concerned he had every right. Let the stars burn themselves out on the black horizon, let cities fall to ash, let the Dunn brothers have one stupid fight, but that right would always be his.

“GO AWAY!” Teddy shrieked at him, but Jeremiah just pulled the flashlight out of his back pocket and went grimly on in.


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