we are here
nathan alling long
We were all scared when the text came through. When you’re sitting in class and you hear fifteen cell phones go off—bells, chirps, fragments of song, vibrations, honks, a dog barking, a duck quacking—the sound itself is frightening. It takes a second to realize what’s going on, that there’s an official alert from the university sent to all our phones at once, and then another second to imagine the worst, before we were able to look at our screens.
We were relieved that it was not what we feared, but only an alert, a “severe weather condition advisory.”
“I thought we were being attacked,” the loudest of us said, loudly.
“I know,” said the boy who always wore a tie. Several of us laughed, nervous laughter, relieved laughter.
“And what the hell is ‘a severe weather condition’?” the boy up front who always looks angry said.
The teacher was standing before us all, looking down at her phone, smiling at our comments. “This message gets a C- for vague language,” she said.
We laughed, half obligatorily, half worried that we might receive such a grade, such a comment, somewhere in the semester. This was just the second class, a writing class for med students—which my father had joked, “You mean to improve your handwriting?”
“We’re not in medical school to dissect sentences,” one of us said on the first day, just as the teacher walked in the room. Nervous laughter.
“You’re not here to dissect bodies, either,” she’d said. “You’re here to help human beings get healthy. I’m here to remind you what human beings are.” She smiled.
More nervous laughter. A bit of contempt, and guilt.
“What could it be?” the girl in the front row with glasses asked, referring to the text alert. “A Hurricane? A tornado? A flood?”
“Global warming,” the boy next to me said solemnly.
“Tsunami,” one of the white guys near the window suggested, and then looked sheepishly around at the Asian students.
“Unlikely,” one of them said with the seriousness of a detective discussing a murder weapon. “We’re on the second floor of a ten story building in center city Philadelphia, 65 miles from the coastline.”
“Earthquake?” the guy with the stained shirt in the back of the class suggested. A couple of us then began to shake the legs of the large conference table we sat around, and a couple students jumped in their seats. Laughter of various kinds. We hadn’t had so much fun in a class since undergrad.
But then the sky darkened, rapidly, blackish clouds sweeping over the campus buildings and the skyscrapers beyond. Within seconds, it began to rain.
It was early September and there hadn’t been any severe weather predicted, nothing unusual for days. It had been sunny that morning, a high reaching almost 80 and was just cooling off as we entered the building a few minutes ago. The class was only an hour and a half long and most of us were in short sleeves, weren’t carrying umbrellas or raincoats.
Rain beat hard against the windows, splatting loud, like mud thrown against glass. We all turned to look outside, to watch the last pedestrians scurry into buildings or cower under the bus stop on the corner.
We heard thunder and a bolt of lightning streaked across the city sky. “How strange,” the teacher said.
Several of us checked our phones for information, but the internet was slow in that building, and the storm seemed to make it slower. A terrible wind picked up and we watched leaves and trash blow by, all the way up here on the second floor. A yellow flier of some sort pasted itself against the wet window pane, and a couple of us ran up to read it.
“’Free counseling,’” the nearest boy said.
“Give me the number,” the one behind him joked, “I’m feeling a bit anxious.”
“I am worried,” the teacher said seriously. “This isn’t normal.”
She walked up to the window and looked up at the black sky, but the rain smeared much of what was beyond the pane.
A branch flew by, and then a hat. We heard rattling outside and saw the single chain that kept people off the grass below was flipping like a jump rope between two poles. A bike locked to the next section was rocking back and forth.
“This is serious,” said the girl in the cotton dress with small pink cats on it. “Maybe we should move into the hallway.”
“And miss the show?” said the boy who never shaved.
But then, just as suddenly, the wind and rain ceased. We heard the last spat of water against the glass and saw several leaves and a Styrofoam cup drop suddenly out of the sky to the ground, where they were carried away by a stream of runoff. The sky lightened, the clouds broke, and sun poured through, hot and desperate.
“Well,” the teacher said. “That was intense. Maybe something to write about?”
We laughed, nervous and disheartened. The storm, with all its distraction, had left us just like that. Suddenly, we were med students in an English class again. Remorse replaced fear.
But then we felt the sky darken once more and the tall boy with the shaved head, said, “Look!”
Outside, it was beginning to snow, soft flakes meandering down to the wet pavement and grass, disappearing as soon as they landed.
“Snow in September? It was like eighty degrees out two hours ago,” the girl closest to the door said.
“No,” the teacher said, “this isn’t right.”
“Maybe,” said the girl with the shaved head, “it’s not snow but ash.”
We all knew what they meant. We breathed in, held our breath. Those of us on the far side of the window pushed our chairs back against the wall, as though those few feet would make a difference. The boy who’d said Tsunami bent in close to the window to see if it were ash or snow.
The wind picked up then, swirling the white specks in large eddies. They began to fall heavy, but churned over and over, never landing. The flakes got larger too, and the boy who always wore a tie joined the other boy, and after examining the window, said he’d seen actual flakes—that it was snow, not ash.
“That’s good,” the teacher said, who was still standing in the front of the class. Though she hadn’t taught us anything that afternoon, had led no discussion, had not directed us into any action, it was reassuring she was there. It made it seem like we were still a class, that we were not simply random people stuck in a room while the unexplainable took place outside.
And though it was good that the snow was only snow, none of us felt reassured, especially as the flakes grew larger, then clumped together, until pelts of ice began to form. The wind was strong enough to catch the hail and throw it into its tumbler of snow. The swirl before us, which encompassed the entire lawn, was thickening into a solid mass. On its edge, the hail pelted the sidewalk and beat against the windows of our building. It sounded like bullets, and one piece hit so hard, we were sure the glass had cracked, but when one of us looked for the damage, afraid to get too close for too long, we could not find it.
“I see why they called it ‘severe weather condition,’” the unshaven boy said, and we laughed a little. Nervous, uncertain. It was true—how else could you describe what was happening?
The snow kept entering the vortex over the green, as though it were building up speed and mass, preparing to rush toward us. Several of us wanted to pull closed the curtains, but the girl with the pink cat dress said, “We need to see what’s going on.”
We felt then the building shake, a tremor that made our shaking of the table earlier seem like the bad joke it was. Our pens rattled, our laptops shook. We felt our bodies jiggle in our black plastic chairs.
“What’s going on?” the loudest boy said, in a whisper.
The lights flickered as they swayed from their cords. Everything felt as though it was going to fall apart.
Then the tremors stopped, as suddenly as the rain had. We sat silent. Several of us started to cry as particles of ceiling tile floated down and coated the table, our clothes, and our skin.
“Can we go home?” the smallest boy in the class asked the teacher, though it seemed he was asking the whole class. The question, which was followed by a long silence, seemed to carry more weight than he had intended. For sure, he meant going back to our dorms, but many of us were thinking beyond the dorms.
The teacher looked at the smallest boy, then glanced at the swirling cyclone of wind and snow and ice outside. She stood there a moment, as though she were imagining the boy out in this weather, how quickly he’d be swept up in it.
“No,” she said, “I don’t think any of us can go home.”
Nathan Alling Long's award-winning work appears on NPR and in over a hundred publications. His collection of 50 short fictions, The Origin of Doubt (2018), was selected as a finalist for a Lambda Literary award. He’s the recipient of a Truman Capote fellowship, Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers Conference scholarships, and three Pushcart nominations. He lives in Philadelphia and teaches at Stockton University.