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Wildhorse Heights, Texas
Death was near but Jenna Cooper was not aware. No one was.
Like the thousands of other people at the Old Southern Glory Flea Market, in the southeastern part of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, she was hunting for bargains.
Jenna liked coming here. With more than nine hundred vendors in buildings and open-air sections spread over forty acres at the Hawn and LBJ freeways, Old Southern was one of the biggest flea markets in Texas.
Whatever Jenna needed, she could always find a deal on it.
"Can I make you an offer on these?"
Jenna touched the folded baby clothes she'd selected and piled on the vendor's table. The fleece hoodie, the footed pajamas, a romper, T-shirts, bibs, the lace tops and the skorts, which were so cute.
The vendor was wearing a Cowboys ball cap, rose-tinted sunglasses and a T-shirt that read: Verna's Clothes for Kids. Jenna guessed her to be in her late sixties.
"What's your offer, dear?"
Jenna figured the clothes would cost fifty to sixty dollars if she were to buy them new. But the items, as tagged on the table, would run about thirty-five dollars. She was not very good at negotiating, but these days she had no choice. For her, Blake and the kids, money was an issue.
"Would you take twenty-five for all of them?"
The woman took stock of Jenna's daughter, who was holding on to the stroller where her baby brother was waking up from a nap.
"How old are your little ones?" she asked, weighing Jenna's offer.
"Cassie's four, almost five, and her baby brother Caleb's five months."
"I bet they're a handful."
"All right, dear, for you and your angels, twenty-five."
"Thank you." Jenna handed her the cash from her wallet.
While the vendor rummaged under the table for a bag, the old transistor radio hanging from her wooden sign that also read Verna's Clothes for Kids, crackled faintly with an updated weather report.
But few people were listening about the possible tornado watch.
The sky was overcast with flashes of lightning on the horizon. It was hot and humid. Jenna pressed the back of her hand to her moist forehead then checked on Caleb. He was going to be hungry and she'd have to find a place to feed him. She gave Cassie a sip of bottled water, intending to finish shopping and get home before it rained.
"Your little girl's beautiful."
Jenna's attention shifted to the end of the table, where another woman had stopped browsing to pay her the compliment. She was about Jenna's age, mid-twenties, with short spiky red hair and a nice smile.
"Thank you," Jenna said.
"And-" the stranger nodded to the stroller "-I overheard, your baby boy's five months old?"
"Yes." Jenna beamed.
"May I?" The woman stepped closer, lowering herself to Caleb's stroller. "Oh, he's brand-new! What a sweetheart!"
"Here's your bag," the vendor said to Jenna.
"Thanks." She reached out for it.
"Who does he take after?" The stranger stood.
"His dad. He's got his father's eyes."
For the first time, Jenna noticed a man at the other end of the table. He seemed about the same age as the woman and by the way he was watching, appeared to be with her.
"You're so blessed. They're beautiful children," the woman said.
"Thank you." Jenna stowed the clothes in the stroller's basket.
That woman was right, Jenna thought, while making her way through the bustling market. Jenna was blessed, but this past year had been hard for her family. A week after she'd learned that she was pregnant, Blake was laid off from his ground-crew job at DFW International Airport. As weeks and months passed, Blake took any work he could find. He'd come home, hands callused from a long day on a construction site, or he'd fall asleep in front of the TV after a day making dozens of deliveries as a courier. But that was all low-paying, temporary work.
Blake couldn't find a good, steady job.
Jenna was a part-time teller and worked as many hours as she could before she was due. They were burning through the little savings they had, and she feared they would lose their home, right up until six weeks ago. That's when Blake was hired by American Journey Movers. It was full-time, and luckily there were health benefits, which helped when she had Caleb.
The downside was that Blake was always on the road. He started in Florida one week then was in Minnesota the next. Thankfully, Jenna's sister, Holly, came in from Atlanta for two weeks when Caleb was born, because the day after Jenna brought him home from the hospital, Blake was on the road again to Kentucky and Virginia.
Now he was in Alaska.
Jenna missed him.
"You'll tough it out, Jen," Blake would tell her. "You're not a quitter. We'll get through this. Look at all we've faced so far."
He was right, and she was grateful. Things were turning around for them. She had a healthy baby boy and a beautiful daughter. Blake had found a good job. It was true, she was blessed. They'd kept their house and were clearing their debts.
To help with their finances, Jenna was trying to get a data-processing job that would let her do extra work at home. She was also careful with money, never spending beyond their budget. That's why she had buckled Cassie and Caleb into the family's ten-year-old Ford Focus and come here.
But before heading out this morning, she'd hesitated. The forecast had called for a slight risk of severe weather later this afternoon. Standing in her driveway, she thought the sky looked fine, and she planned to be home by early afternoon. Besides, she needed to get some things now, and this was the best time for her to go.
They'd had good luck so far, Jenna thought, as she maneuvered through the crowded market lanes. Along with the baby clothes, she'd bought towels and bedsheets for a steal. They had factory flaws that weren't even noticeable. Now she needed a desk lamp. She'd spotted one priced at two dollars. The same one in the store was going for fifteen.
Caleb was starting to fuss. Jenna needed to feed him but wanted to get the lamp first. She was trying to recall the row where the lamp was when she felt the first raindrop.
Then a wind kicked up some papers and dirt. Vendors began throwing tarps and plastic sheets over their wares, others unrolled canvas walls. Jenna unfolded the canopy on Caleb's stroller, got Cassie into her rain jacket and opened her umbrella just as the downpour started.
Hunched against the rain they hurried to take cover under the tent roof of a large picnic area. They crammed in with other shoppers just as hail in golf-ball-sized chunks smashed into the ground, pelting the roof with such ferocity Jenna feared it would tear through.
"Mommy I'm scared!" Cassie slid her arms around her.
Jenna pulled her closer and tightened her grip on her stroller. She bit her lip watching the storm and lightning, regretting not leaving earlier.
"Mommy, I want to go home!"
"Me, too, honey. It'll stop soon. Then we'll get you a cookie, I'll feed Caleb and we'll go home, okay?"
Jenna felt Cassie's little face nodding against her as the hail relented.
"What! Baby, I can't hear you!"
Jenna's head snapped to a man in the gathered crowd with his cell phone pressed to his ear. "Baby!"
Others under the canopy turned to a woman as she said, "For real?" into her cell phone.
"Baby." The man was staring helplessly at the sky, then at his phone. "I can't hear you!" Then to the rest of the group he said, "My wife's east of Lancaster. She said a tornado hit, then her phone died." He flipped up his hood. "I gotta find her. Y'all better take cover!"
As if on cue, a siren wailed. Jenna knew that sound. The city had about a hundred warning sirens throughout Dallas and tested them once a month.
Only this one was not a test.
The steady signal was an alert to seek immediate shelter.
Jenna was transfixed.
A massive wall of black cloud in the shape of a wedge had suddenly risen in the west where the sky had turned an otherworldly shade of green. All the saliva in Jenna's mouth suddenly evaporated as she fought to contain the wave of panic rising in her gut.
"My God!" an old man said, adjusting his glasses as he pointed to the sky. "That's a school bus spinning up there, hundreds of feet in the air!"
Crushing Cassie to her, Jenna whispered a prayer.
* * *
Wildhorse Heights, Texas
Jenna's heart was racing.
Numbed by disbelief, she stared through the rain at the towering wall of black cloud swirling toward the market.
Vendors were scrambling to protect their goods; people hurried in all directions. The siren's cry underscored the panic vibrating among those huddled under the tent; some ran off to the nearest building. Horns blared.
Beyond the rows of tables, Jenna saw the cars grid-locked in a futile struggle to leave. She calculated her chances of getting her children to their car in the distant parking lot before the storm hit.
We won't make it in time.
"Mommy!" Cassie covered her ears with her hands. "I want to go, Mommy! I'm scared!"
Caleb was crying.
We have to find a safe place, now!
The nearest building was their best hope. She'd keep Caleb in his stroller; that way she could move faster with the kids. Quickly, she tightened the straps holding him, then she hoisted Cassie onto her hip, carrying her with one arm while steering Caleb's stroller with her free hand.
As they headed into the rain, the tent canopy blew away behind them.
"Hang on to me, Cassie!"
Jenna bent against the wind, determined to make it to the building some forty yards off. She saw the scores of people clogging the entrance and prayed that she could get her children inside.
There's no turning back, nowhere else to go.
Items from the market started shooting through the air around them, a lawn chair, a bookcase and a folding table, ricocheting off the ground, trees and structures.
Above the siren and all the noise Jenna heard a scream, turned and saw an older man knocked down by a flying piece of lumber. People who'd stopped to help him were suddenly in the path of a large Dumpster, tumbling at top speed before it hit them like they were bowling pins.
Jenna agonized over stopping to help when Caleb's stroller began shaking and lifting slightly as gusts tried to wrench him from her grip. She fought to hold on to Caleb and Cassie and kept moving to the building, praying with each yard she covered until she made it to the entrance where she joined the others inching their way inside.
"Please hurry, please!" Jenna pleaded over the rushing winds.
Known as the Saddle Up Center, the large square building had been constructed decades ago in a pole barn design with a concrete floor, wooden frame, metal walls and a metal roof. It housed rows of vendors' tables displaying clothes, furniture and collectables. Hundreds of worried shoppers were jamming into it.
Foreboding filled the air. The warning siren was accompanied by the furious, staccato bombardment of debris striking the walls and roof. The building shook as if under artillery attack.
People with working cell phones shouted out reports.
"A lot of injuries in Lancaster!"
"Transformers are blowing, fires everywhere!"
"A tornado is heading this way!"
There was a loud bang; a streetlight pierced the roof, its large arm swaying perilously above the crowd.
The center's lights began flickering as debris hammered the building and the wind howled.
"She ain't gonna hold much longer!" a man shouted.
As Caleb cried, Jenna stared at the roof. The wooden trusses supporting the roof began bending and cracking. She craned her neck, searching for someplace, anyplace, to go.
"Mommy!" Cassie was sobbing.
She was heavy in Jenna's arm and she had to put her down.
"Mommy, please, no! I'm scared. Hold me!"
"Sweetie, we have to find someplace safe."
Jenna's heart was pounding as she looked for a stairway to a basement, a cellar, a grandstand, anything to protect her children.
There was nothing.
Oh God, please help us!
The roof began shifting. A steel trash drum punctured it like a bullet, smashing into a vendor's stall. Then a small car with terrified people inside hurled through the top of one wall, crashing down onto the sea of helpless shoppers. People screamed while others tried to lift it from the victims.
The building's walls began to ripple from the pulverizing wind. Jenna's breathing quickened, the blood rush in her ears keeping time with her heart. She got down on her knees and pulled Cassie and Caleb's stroller closer to her.
We 're not going to die here.
Someone grabbed her shoulder.
"This way!" a woman shouted into her ear. "Come with me! It's safer this way!"
Jenna recognized the red-haired woman she'd met earlier, who'd fussed over Caleb.
"You look like you need a hand! Let me take him for you-we need to cut across the floor!"
Jenna had no time to think. She let the woman take control of Caleb's stroller. Jenna carried Cassie while the man accompanying the woman cleared the way for them. Her pulse galloping, Jenna still savored a degree of relief.
Amid the noise and confusion they found a corner where four huge concrete planters were stored against a wall. Keep us safe here! Please keep us safe! The planters were about three feet tall and three feet square with a narrow gap between them that no one was using.
The roar grew so intense Jenna felt vibrations in her rib cage as the earth began trembling.
The woman pushed Caleb's stroller into the gap between the planters; Jenna followed, holding Cassie. They hunkered down as chunks of wood began raining from the roof.
Adrenaline pumping, Jenna's body quaked and she begged Heaven to keep her family safe.
As the man tried to pull a canvas over them, Jenna saw the winds suck the doors from the building, then some people.
The roof began twisting as trusses gave way and large beams fell on helpless people. Chunks of the building's wall started ripping away, then the roof was gone, people vanished up into black swirling clouds. Metal, wood and debris rained down on Jenna and the others.
Tears streamed down Jenna's face.
Please help us! Keep my children safe! Don't let us die!
The heavy planters began shifting.
During horrible chaos Jenna held Cassie tight and held the stroller's frame as the wind tried to tear it away. The kind stranger was holding on, too.
Lord, please help me!
The last thing Jenna remembered was hanging on to her children and praying before something struck her head. She saw stars before everything went black.