Torn Away

Jennifer Brown

For Scott and Pranston,

You are my home


Marin wanted to teach me the East Coast Swing. It was pretty much her only goal in life. She was constantly pulling on my arms or standing in front of the TV, her hands on her square little hips, sparkle nail polish glinting and ratty rose-colored tutu quivering.

“Come on, Jersey, it’s fun. You’ll like it. Jersey!” Stomp. “Are you listening to me? Jerseeey!”

She’d learned swing in Miss Janice’s dance class. Technically, it wasn’t a routine they were there to learn, but one evening Janice, in an old-school mood, had popped in a swing CD and taught them how to do it. Marin thought it was the best dance ever.

She was forever counting off, her pudgy five-year-old arms around an imaginary dance partner, her brown curls bouncing to a beat only she could hear as she hummed what she remembered of the song they’d danced to in class.

But she really wanted me to be her dance partner. She probably imagined me grabbing her wrists, pulling her through my legs, tossing her into the air, and then catching her. She probably envisioned the two of us in matching costumes, wowing an audience.

“Not now, Marin,” I told her time and again, too busy watching TV or doing homework or texting my best friends, Jane and Dani, about what pests little sisters can be. Especially little sisters who think the whole world is about the East Coast Swing.

Marin lived in leotards. She had sequined ones and velvety ones and some that looked like tuxedoes and plain ones in every color of the rainbow. She wore them until they were so small her butt cheeks hung out and her tutus sported holes in the netting that she could fit a fist through. Still, Mom had to throw them away when Marin wasn’t looking, and had to buy new ones to make up for the favorites that were lost.

We’d begun to wonder if Marin would insist on wearing leotards when she started kindergarten in the fall and what exactly would happen when the teacher said she couldn’t. We feared meltdowns, epic morning battles, ultimatums.

Because Marin wore those dance leotards everywhere. Around the house, to the store, to bed.

And, of course, to dance class.

She was wearing one on the day of the tornado. It was tangerine-colored with black velvet panels on the sides, a line of rhinestones dotting the neckline. I knew this because it was what she’d been wearing when she asked me to do the East Coast Swing with her before she went to class that day.

“I can teach you,” she’d said hopefully, hopping on her toes next to the couch, where I was sprawled back doing nothing but staring at a car commercial. As if I’d ever have money for a car.

“No,” I said. “Get out of the way. I can’t see the TV.”

She’d glanced over her shoulder at the TV, and I could see where something sticky had adhered a bit of black lint to her cheek. Wisps of curls around her face looked like they’d once been sticky as well. Probably a Popsicle. It was the end of May and already warm enough for Popsicles. School would be out in less than a week, and I would officially be a senior. She leaned in closer and prodded my shoulder with her fat little fingers—also sticky.

“It’s a commercial. Get up. I’ll show you.”

“No, Marin.” I’d groaned, getting annoyed, brushing my shirt off where her fingers had touched, and when she’d commenced to jumping up and down in front of me, repeating Pleasepleaseplease, I yelled at her. “No! I don’t want to! Go away!”

She stopped jumping and pouted, sticking out her bottom lip the way little kids do when they’re getting ready to cry. She didn’t say anything. Didn’t cry. Didn’t throw a fit. Just blinked at me, that lower lip trembling, and then walked away, the bling on her leotard catching the light from the TV. I heard her go into Mom’s room. I heard them talking. And when they left for dance class, I felt relieved that she was finally out of my hair.

I loved Marin.

I loved my little sister.

But after that day, I would hear myself over and over again: Go away! I would shout at her in my dreams. I would see that trembling lip. I would see the slow blink of her big, pixie-like eyes. I would see her walk away, up on her toes the way she always did, the glint of the rhinestones from her leotard blinding me.



The day of the tornado began gray and dreary—one of those days where you don’t want to do anything but lounge around and sleep while it mists and drizzles and spits. All of the classrooms looked dark and shadowy and gross and there was no energy in the building whatsoever. And all of the teachers were practically begging someone, anyone, to answer one of their questions, but when they turned their backs to write on the whiteboard, they were stifling yawns of their own because they felt it, too.

Spring is like that around Elizabeth, Missouri. One day it’s really beautiful and sunny and the birds outside your window wake you up, they’re tweeting so loud. And the next day it’s chilly and windy and you can hear gusts lashing up against the side of your house and buzzing against the blinds of the laundry room window that has never been very airtight. And then the next day it does nothing but rain and drum up earthworms onto the sidewalks, only to shrivel them with the next day’s sun and wind.

Welcome to the Midwest, Mom used to say. Where the weather keeps you guessing and you’re almost always sure to hate it. We made complaining about the weather a full-time job in Elizabeth. It was the one thing we could count on to blame for our migraines and our blue funks and the reason we overslept and our bad-hair days. The unpredictable weather could derail even the best day.

When the final bell rang that day, Miss Sopor, my language arts teacher, hollered out, “Quiz tomorrow on Bless the Beasts, people! Got some thunderstorms coming in tonight. Perfect reading weather. Hint, hint!”

And sure enough, when we walked out to the bus, the clouds were pressing in on us, thickening up and making it seem much more like evening than 3:15 in the afternoon.

“Sopor’s quizzes are stupid,” Dani said, her hip brushing up against mine as we slid down the bus line. “I’ve never studied for one and I always get As.”

“ ‘Quiz tomorrow! Bless the Beasts, people! Hint, hint!’ ” I mimicked, because I did a pretty good impression of Miss Sopor, and we both laughed. “I already read most of it anyway,” I said. I peered over my shoulder. Kolby, my neighbor, was several steps behind me, carrying his skateboard as usual. I waved to him and he waved back. “Where’s Jane?” I asked Dani.

“Had to stay after for orchestra rehearsal. Better her than me. I’ve been ready to go home since lunch. I can’t imagine having to hang out in this prison for another three hours. But you know Jane and her violin. She’s happy about it.”

“She’s going to die with that violin permanently attached to her hand,” I added.

Jane was ultradevoted to her instrument, and Dani and I mercilessly teased her about it. But we both knew that without Jane our trio would never be complete. She was musical and scrappy and her hair managed to make frizz look cool. We’d all been friends since the seventh-grade musical. Jane was in the orchestra, Dani was the lead, and I happily knocked around in the pitch-black lighting booth with my clipboard and headset.

It was sort of a metaphor for our lives together, when I thought about it. Dani was the beauty—front and center, lapping up the spotlight and the applause. I was the support crew—uncomfortably hiding my pudge and shyness beneath a loose T-shirt. And without Jane, neither of us had any reason to be onstage at all.

We got on the bus and bumped our way home. In keeping with the rest of the day, everyone seemed sleepy and subdued. The sky continued to darken, and the wind picked up, blowing some of the newly budding flowers almost flat against the ground. Dani and I sat in weary silence, Dani texting some guy from her economics class and me watching the neighborhoods roll by. The windows were open, and the warm breeze felt good against my face.

On Thursday nights, I had exactly one hour between the time I got off the bus and the time Mom got home with Marin. Just enough time to claim a snack and the TV, but not nearly enough to decompress to a level where I could handle Marin’s excessive energy. Something about preschool amped her up—made her loud and squeaky so she practically vibrated around the room. It was my least favorite part of the afternoon, that space between when Mom and Marin bulldozed through the front door and when they left for Marin’s dance class, leaving me to start dinner.

That day, Marin tumbled into the living room, already wearing her orange-and-black leotard with the rhinestone collar, her face sticky from a Popsicle or whatever it was they gave her at school. She hopped over to the couch and immediately began bugging me about the East Coast Swing.

Mom, still in her work skirt and low, scuffed heels, bustled around us, mumbling things about the living room being “a damn cave” as she snapped on lights, making me blink and squint.

“No! I don’t want to! Go away!” I yelled at Marin, and she went into Mom’s room, where I could hear her chattering incessantly and rifling through things while Mom tried to change clothes. I ignored them, finally satisfied that it was quiet and I could watch TV in peace.