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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
368 pages
Sep 2007

On the Loose

by Jenny B. Jones

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt



Another ad for feminine products. Is it just a universal law that if you sit down to watch TV with a guy, you are guaranteed at least two tampon commercials?

I sigh with relief when American Idol comes back on and focus my attention on the contestant.

“Get off the stage! You can’t sing. Girl, your mother’s been lying to you.”

James, my foster dad, rips the remote control out of my hands. He collapses back into his leather recliner and shouts another piece of artistic advice to the contestant on TV. I watch this fifty-five-year- old pastor howling along to ’N Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye” and wish I had a mute button.

“How did she get into the top ten?” His intense gaze seeks mine. “Have you ever heard anyone so bad?”

I blink. Is this a rhetorical question — like when we girls ask if we look fat?

As the painful song ends, James shouts more criticism and comments at the TV. If his congregation could only see him now, preaching his Simon-like truth to the contestants on American Idol, they would drop their NIVs and run. It’s like the evil spirit of pop, rock, and disco takes over his body. So not pretty.

I eyeball the remote in his hands, clutched in a death grip. Ah, remote, we used to be so close. Once upon a time, we had such good times together. So much of my life has changed since coming to live with James and Millie Scott. Most of it for the good, but their firm control of my viewing habits still totally bites. I was used to free reign, trolling through the cable channels to my heart’s content. I mean, my own mother’s only rule during prime-time viewing hours was that I didn’t interrupt her illegal drug sales. She was all for HBO if it kept me occupied. Those days are so over. But now I’ve got my foster parents completely addicted to the few shows I can still watch.

Like American Idol. And yet Laguna Beach still calls my name . . .

“James, are you watching the weather?”

Millie walks into the living room, a frown on her face. She opens the blinds and looks outside.

“Yeah, the weather. Uh-huh.” He turns up the volume. “Oh, did you hear Simon? That’s exactly what I would’ve said.”

“Honey, switch it to a local channel for a second, would you? Mother just called and said there’re some weather alerts.”

“Millie, this is the last contestant for the night. We’ve got to see this. The theme tonight is Justin Timberlake songs, and I’ve been waiting all week for this.”

My foster mom and I freeze. And stare at James. Okay, number one, how does he even know who Justin Timberlake is? And two, he’s been counting the days until the former ’N Sync star was on American Idol?

With a final glance out the window, Millie plops down on the couch beside me. “This is all your fault, Katie. Last night he asked me if he was too old to try out for the show.”

James laughs and passes me some popcorn. “I could show Justin a thing or two.”

Yes, but Mr. Timberlake would need intense therapy afterward. “James, the world is just not ready for your singing talents.”

Rocky, the family dog, follows the food and parks his large body on my feet. I try to shove him away, but it’s no use. Just one of the many things I’m getting used to around here.

“Okay, commercial break. Now flip it over to channel seven.”

Millie throws a pillow at her husband to get his attention.

“Just a sec.” James pulls his cell phone out of his pocket.

“We’re still going with that voting strategy we talked about at dinner, right?”

My foster dad has a whole system going. He’s got spreadsheets, bar graphs, and occasionally he even watches Entertainment Tonight to get the inside scoop on the singers. I’m just waiting for the day he starts his own Idol blog.

Millie lifts herself off the couch and grabs the remote out of James’s hand.

“Come on. We’re gonna miss the first part of the judges’ comments. If you could wait ten more minutes and — ”

A loud siren from outside stops James mid-sentence. It sounds like the fire drill at school, but it’s much louder. My eyes go wide, and I look back and forth between my foster parents.

“What’s that?” The hair on the back of my neck stands on end.

“The tornado alarm.”

Millie changes the station and a map of our county is on the screen. It’s covered in red.

James loses all interest in our TV show, as he grabs his glasses and reads the message scrolling on the bottom of the television. “A tornado’s been spotted. It says we need to take shelter immediately.”

The town siren seems to grow more insistent. Rocky whimpers and buries his nose under the couch.

“Let’s get to the bathroom.”

Millie grabs the couch cushions and hands me some to carry with us.

I have never been in a tornado before. I’m from Texas, but where I come from, drought is the biggest weather disaster you have to deal with. Living with the Scotts has been one new experience after another, but this is a moment I could definitely do without. Who has a tornado in February, I ask you?

“I’m still calling American Idol,” James mutters. “Come on, Rocky.”

We speed walk into the Scott’s master bath. Having a bathroom of my own, I’m never in here, but now is not exactly the time to study the nautical theme Millie has going in her powder room.

“Get in.” Millie steps into the large Jacuzzi tub and holds out her hand.

“In the tub?” What, does Millie want to make sure she and her loofah aren’t separated?

“Katie, get in. Then put the couch cushion over your head.”

Great. So in addition to worrying about being sucked up by a funnel cloud, I’m going to have really bad hair too.

I climb in next to Millie and squat low. The TV is blasting the weather report in the other room, and all I can hear is “Take cover. Go to your safe place.” I scoot closer to my foster mom.

“James, come on. Shut the door.” Millie raises the khaki cushion over my head.

Shoving the dog into the bathroom (which is no easy task; that dog is about as big as a buffalo), James swings his legs over the Jacuzzi and sits on Millie’s other side.

“Excuse me.” I clear my throat. “Shouldn’t I be in the middle? I am the child here. You know, the one you two should be protecting at all costs. My left side is totally unprotected, and — oomph!”

Rocky throws his body in to join us, his monstrous frame crashing into my side.

Well, who cares about the tornado? I’m pretty sure I’m going to die under the weight of this overfed mutt.

“Good boy, Rocky.” Millie reaches around and gives her dog a pat. “Feel better, Sweetie?”

“Oh, much.”

Rocky’s whining is louder than both the siren and the TV.

His big dog mouth is near my ear, and his breath is more of a natural disaster than any twister. I try to shove the dog off me with an elbow, but he’s rock solid.

“Doing okay?” James holds his cushion up with one hand, his other arm curling around me and Millie.

My teeth chatter and my body quakes. No, I’m not okay. I’m petrified! I’ve watched the Discovery Channel. I’ve seen what random chaos a tornado is capable of. I know perfectly well in a few hours it could be me, a few cows, and a television set stuck in a tree on the other side of town.

“Everything’s going to be fine. It’s tornado season. Nothing to be afraid of. We’re just taking some precautions.”

Millie’s voice does little to comfort me. Precautions? A precaution is wearing your seat belt in case you might have a wreck. Or carrying an umbrella because it may rain. Three people and a dog huddling in a tub with parts of a couch balanced on their heads is not a precaution. It’s what you do when the weatherman says a tornado is going to sail over your house and rip through your community.

“I’ll pray for us.”

With our heads already bowed, James leads us in prayer, asking God for safety and protection.

Even though I’m living with a pastor, and I’m at church a million times a week, I’m not a Christian. Shocking, I know.  I’m still on the fence. I’m new to church and God, and I’m only now getting to the point where I can go to the youth services on Wednesday nights without wanting to hide in a broom closet all night. This life of faith the Scotts lead has been a huge adjustment for me.

That being said, I hope we don’t get wiped out tonight because I’m just not ready. Should we meet with untimely deaths, I know where the Scotts would go. They’d waltz right into the pearly gates of heaven. Me . . . now that’s another matter. Not tonight, God. I’m not exactly in the believers’ club yet . . . And besides, I can’t die without getting my driver’s license. It would be so embarrassing.

Rocky’s ears perk up and he sniffs the air. Maybe he got a whiff of his own breath.

The lights flicker a few times, and James’s arm tightens around my shoulders. This is not good.

The trees outside beat on the house, and rain pelts the roof. Isn’t it supposed to be really quiet before a tornado? Maybe the threat is over. We’ll probably be back in front of the TV in a few minutes.

Then the room goes black. I stiffen.

No lights. No noise from the TV. Nothing but the sound of the wind howling in the rain and the house shaking with the force of it.

The dog growls and paws at the tub.

I scratch his ear. “Rocky, calm down.” But who can blame him? I’m about to pee my pants myself.

Woof! Woof!

The walls begin to vibrate, and Rocky catapults out of the bathtub, barking at a new noise.

“Got that cushion over you, Katie?” Millie’s voice is higherpitched than usual, and our huddle gets tighter.

The dog scratches at the door, whining and yelping.

“You shut the door, right?” Millie whispers to her husband.

“Rocky, come here. Come on.”

An eerie sound like a distant jet plane has me holding my breath in fear. The door creaks open then crashes against the wall as the dog frees himself from the bathroom.

“Rocky!” We all call out in unison.

The jet sound is getting louder.

And closer.

I can hear things flying against the house. Or maybe it’s hail.

“I’ll get the dog.”

“No, James. Rocky’s more likely to come to me. He’s got to be under the bed. I’ll run out really quick and get him.”

“Millie, no.”

Ignoring her husband, Millie makes a dash for the door, calling for the dog.

Just as the bedroom window explodes.

My ears fill with the pounding of my pulse. The alarm can no longer be heard, and the jet sound is now more like a train — coming for our house at mach speed.

“Stay here!” James flies into the bedroom, calling his wife’s name.

“I’m over here! Just got a little scratched.”

I can’t see a thing, except for the bedroom through the doorway, occasionally illuminated by lightning. My eyes don’t leave the door, and I only release my pent-up breath when the shapes of my foster parents are in front of me.

James shuts us in the bathroom, and we gather close again.

The wind roars, and the Scotts cocoon around me. James is talking, but I can’t hear his words. Tears slip down my face, and I grit my teeth and bury my head into Millie’s shoulder.

The house shakes and sways, as if it’s fighting to stay in place.

Glass shatters in another room. I hold on for dear life.

And then it stops.

My breathing is the loudest thing in the room as the locomotive sounds fade away.

“Is everybody all right?”

The calm timbre of James’s voice fills me with relief. We’re okay. We made it.

“Katie?” And now Millie’s voice.

My body sags against her.

“I’m good.” Though my head is spinning. I can’t believe I just sat through a tornado. Maybe the Weather Channel will want to interview us.

“I’m going to get a flashlight. Everybody just stay put for now. I think we lost a few windows, so there’s probably glass everywhere.”

James returns in a moment, the beam of his light illuminating the bathroom. “Millie, you said you were okay.”

“I am.” She tenses beside me. “Oh . . . I see what you mean.”

My eyes follow the path of the light, and I see Millie’s white shirt.

Covered in blood.