SmokeLong Quarterly

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Don’t Be Alarmed

Story by Gabriel Houck (Read author interview) September 9, 2021

Photograph by Nikolas Noonan

The tornado hit at 3AM, pulling the chimney and roof off the boy’s room, but the boy was not in bed nor sucked into the darkness because the boy was now grown, now gone, one thousand miles away in Iowa, and when the phone rang three hours later it was his mother, saying, now don’t be alarmed, in a voice that was reserved for the most alarming news, in the voice she had used when his cousin, the photographer, had died in a helicopter crash, the voice from when she had called him out of elementary school that day, drove him first to Dairy Queen, watched him eat in the rearview while they sat at the lakefront, neither of them yet ready to talk about why they were there, neither ready to tear the fabric of that small and unexpected moment, the wind on the lake whipping dishwater waves into a twisting spray that reminded the boy suddenly of when his father used to gut catfish on the hood of his truck, of how their jaws worked the air, their sightless eyes wide, a little river of foam spreading beneath their shiny bodies and trailing down the paint in an iridescent sheen – it’s too much to watch, the boy had said, the fish are hurting, but his father still took them by the tail in his great brown fist, lifted them over his head, and swung them down hard against the hood as if he were hammering a nail, each open mouth taking a last breath as it fell – this is what the boy had thought about while parked at the lake in the back seat, eating melting ice cream and watching his mother watch him in the rearview, her mouth working the words she was preparing into the right shape and size and sound, little soft breaths, lips framed in the mirror, beyond which the sun and wind and waves all spun to meet in a whistling howl that he would forever know as the voice of something terrible: a freight-train wall of wind in the night; the ground and sky rotating across the windscreen in a freefall; a flash of sunlight in the center of a vortex; his mother’s silhouette, the heat of the car, that shape behind the eyelids that hovers long after the eyes have closed.


This micro earned second place in the 2021 SmokeLong Grand Micro Contest.

About the Author

Gabriel Houck currently teaches in the Creative Writing program at Emory University. His first story collection, You or a Loved One, won the 2017 Orison Fiction Prize. His fiction appears in Glimmer Train, Mid American Review, The Sewanee Review, West Branch, The Cimarron Review and elsewhere, and his stories “When the Time Came” and “The Dot Matrix” were selected as distinguished stories in The Best American Short Stories in 2015 and 2017, respectively.

About the Artist

Nikolas Noonan is a photographer from Colorado.

This story appeared in Issue Seventy-Two of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Seventy-Two

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