Torn Away


By Jennifer Brown

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Jersey Cameron has always loved a good storm. Watching the clouds roll in and the wind pick up. Smelling the electricity in the air. Dancing barefoot in the rain. She lives in the Midwest, after all, where the weather is sure to keep you guessing. Jersey knows what to do when the tornado sirens sound. But she never could have prepared for this.

When her town is devastated by a tornado, Jersey loses everything. As she struggles to overcome her grief, she’s sent to live with relatives she hardly knows — family who might as well be strangers. In an unfamiliar place, can Jersey discover that even on the darkest of days, there are some things no tornado can destroy?

In this powerful and poignant novel, acclaimed author Jennifer Brown delivers a story of love, loss, hope, and survival.


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Table of Contents

A Sneak Peek of Hate List

Copyright Page

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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.

"Jersey?" Mom called from her room, and I pretended I didn't hear her because I didn't want to get up. A few seconds later, she came into the living room, pulling her earring out, her panty hose draped over one arm, her toes looking red and taxed against the carpet. "Jersey."


"Didn't you hear me calling you?"


A look of annoyance flitted over her face as she reached to pull the earring out of her other ear. "Did you put the towels in the wash?"

"No, I forgot," I said. "I'll get them in a minute."

This time the annoyance crossed her face, full force. "They need to get done. I want them in the dryer before I get back."

"Okay," I mumbled.

"And start dinner," she continued, heading back toward her room.

"I will."

"And take the dishes out of the dishwasher," she called from her bedroom.

"I will! God!" I called back.

I was ten when Mom married Ronnie, but until then it had always been just Mom and me. My alcoholic dad had walked out on us when I was barely a year old. According to my mom, he was constantly in and out of jail for crimes that usually started with the word "drunk," he was hardly a parent to begin with, and most of the time she felt like she was raising two kids, not one. Still, she stuck it out because she thought they were in love. But one night he left and never came back. She'd tried to find him, she said, but it was as if he'd disappeared from the face of the earth. Every time I asked about him, she told me that if he was still alive, he didn't want to be found. At least not by us.

I hadn't seen him since I was a toddler. I couldn't remember what he looked like.

And because Mom's parents were control freaks who wrote her off when she got pregnant with me, I had never seen them, either. I didn't even know where they lived. I only knew they didn't live in Elizabeth.

Ten years of being the Mom-and-me duo meant a lot of chores fell on my shoulders. Mom needed help, and I didn't mind giving it most of the time, because she worked really hard, and though I might not always have had the best stuff or the most expensive vacations, I had the things I needed. And I loved my mom.

But after Mom married Ronnie and had Marin, the chores for two turned into chores for four, and that got old. Sometimes it seemed like Mom was constantly reminding me of the stuff I needed to get done.

Mom and Marin continued rushing around, Marin prancing in and out of the living room, singing, humming, and I pressed the back of my head harder into the throw pillow and wished they would get going already and leave me alone.

Eventually, Mom came into the living room, calling for Marin to go to the bathroom and shoving her feet into the black flats she'd left next to the front door. She'd changed into jeans and a T-shirt and was digging through her purse.

"Okay, we're going to dance class," she said absently. "Be back in an hour or so."

"'Kay," I said. Bored. Uninterested. Ready for them to leave.

Marin raced into the living room, her own purse draped over her arm, looking like a miniature version of Mom. In truth, it was Mom's old purse, an ugly black thing Mom had given to Marin after she got tired of it. Marin adored it, carried it everywhere, stuffing it with her most prized possessions.

"No, leave that here," Mom said, pushing open the screen door with her shoulder.

"But I want to take it," Marin argued.

"No, you'll forget it, like last time, and I don't want to have to make another return trip to Miss Janice's. Leave it here."

"Nooo!" Marin cried, getting her Meltdown Voice on.

Mom gave her the no-nonsense look I recognized all too well. "You're going to be late, and then you'll miss the hello dance," she warned.

Marin, head down and shoulders droopy, placed the purse on the floor next to the door and followed Mom out onto the porch, her glittery little shoes looking dull and lifeless under the cloudy sky.

"Don't forget the laundry," Mom said on her way out.

"I know," I singsonged back sarcastically, rolling my eyes.

I thought I knew so much—knew there was laundry to be done, knew when Mom and Marin would come home, knew how the rest of the evening was going to go.

But I didn't know anything.

I had no idea.


After Mom and Marin left, I got up and put the towels in the washing machine. It had gotten so dark I had to turn on the overhead light to see what I was doing. The cloud cover almost made it feel like nighttime.

I poured soap over the towels, thinking once again how it seemed like everything had changed when Mom married Ronnie. I'd gone from being the most important thing in her life to being one of the most important things in her life. Sounds like the same thing, but it isn't. Sharing the spotlight gets kind of crowded sometimes, especially when you were used to having so much space in it before.

When Mom got pregnant, I was excited. Being an only child could get lonely, and I'd always envied my friends who had siblings. I didn't think ten years was that much difference, really. I thought Marin would look up to me and I could teach her all kinds of things and be like her hero or something. But what I hadn't banked on was that there would be a lot of years where she would be a baby. The baby. The center of everything.

And even though I knew I was that once, too, it still sucked when it was her turn. Which made me feel like a jerk. What kind of horrible person resented her little sister for something she couldn't even control?

After I got the laundry started, I went into the kitchen and pulled out the hamburger meat and a skillet. I crumbled the burger into the skillet and turned on the stove, then wandered back toward the living room to watch some more TV while I waited for the meat to start cooking. On the way, I grabbed my backpack off the kitchen table, dug my reading homework out of it—hint, hint, ladies and gentlemen!—and carried it to the couch with me.

But as I turned on the lamp next to the couch and sat down, the TV station switched to the news, a meteorologist standing in front of a giant map with a radar image on it, a bright red patch moving across the screen in jumps and fits.

I picked up my book and started reading, waiting for him to finish talking and get back to the show. Seemed like every time a raindrop or snowflake fell anywhere near Elizabeth, the weather forecasters acted like the end of the world was coming.

I read, tuning in and out of what he was saying, catching bits and pieces.

… system that is producing tornadoes in Clay County is moving east at approximately… seems to be picking up speed… had two reported touchdowns… headed toward… will hit Elizabeth at five sixteen…

I heard the meat start to sizzle in the kitchen and put down my book. Rain or shine, we still had to eat.

As soon as I picked up the spatula, the sirens started.

I paused, my hand in the air, and listened. One of the sirens was in a field behind my old elementary school, two blocks away from our house, so it was loud. When I was a kid, the tornado sirens used to freak me out. They used to freak all of us out, and the teachers were always having to tell us to calm down. Kids would be crying, holding their palms over their ears and asking for their moms, and the teachers would be standing at the front of the room with their hands up in the air, shouting to be heard over us and the sirens, reminding us that they were only monthly tests and there was no emergency. By fifth grade, we were all cool about it—Oh, it's the tornado sirens, no big deal—and by middle school we barely even noticed the sirens at all.

I leaned back and glanced into the living room, where the meteorologist was still standing in front of the Doppler photo, still pointing and talking, a sheaf of papers in his right hand. I sighed, looking back at the half-cooked meat. I didn't want to turn it off, only to have it be another false alarm and have dinner ruined and Mom pissed. But technically, we were under a tornado warning. And even though there was a warning about every third week in Elizabeth, we were supposed to take it seriously each time and go downstairs.

Hardly anyone ever did, though. Midwest weather was crazy, after all, and half the time too crazy to really predict. We'd all learned to ignore the warnings. Most of them never turned out to be anything anyway.

I moved over to the kitchen sink and peered out the window. I could see wind pushing the swings on our neighbors' swing set. The rings danced merrily, and the slide quivered. Kolby, who'd lived next door to me since we were toddlers, was standing outside on his back porch, hands in his pockets, gazing up into the sky, his hair whipping around so that I could see his scalp with each gust. Kolby always did this when the weather turned bad. A lot of people did, actually. They wanted the chance to see a funnel cloud for themselves, should one ever appear. I reached up and knocked on the window. He didn't hear me. I knocked again, louder, and he turned, pulled a hand out of his pocket, and waved. I waved back.

He was peering out over Church Street, where plenty of cars were creeping along with their headlights on. Rush hour was starting and everyone was coming home, like normal. It wasn't even raining.

I went back to the stove, still holding the spatula, and decided to wait until it started to rain or do something more serious than just look nasty.

But I had no more than touched the meat with the spatula when the power went out, bathing me in darkness and that blatting of the emergency sirens, which went on and on, so loud I only barely heard the buzz of the blinds in the laundry room as the wind pressed against the house harder and harder.

"Great," I said aloud. "I guess we'll have McDonald's for dinner, then."

I put the spatula down and turned off the stove, then grabbed my backpack, stuffing my book inside, and headed for the basement, aka Ronnie's Room.

The basement wasn't a terrible place to kill time, especially since Ronnie had put a pool table, a couch, and a mini-fridge down there. Every so often he'd have some friends over and they'd all disappear downstairs, and we could hear pool balls cracking up against one another and smell the cigarette smoke as it drifted up through the living room carpet. He didn't love us hanging out in his space, but tonight I had no choice.

I rummaged around on Ronnie's worktable and found a flashlight, then clicked it on; it worked. Giving a quick glance to the one small window—it was still dark and windy—I flopped down on the couch and opened my book.

My phone buzzed and I pulled it out of my pocket.

"Hey, Dani, I guess it's a good time to catch up on some reading for tomorrow's quiz," I said in my Miss Sopor impression.

"Are you downstairs?" Dani's voice was worried, thin.

"Yep. Waste of time, but since the power's out, I have nothing better to do, I guess."

"My mom said a tornado touched down on M Highway. She said it's headed right toward us. She wanted me to make sure you knew."

M Highway was closer than I wanted it to be, and that news startled me a little, but it was still the country out there. It seemed like tornadoes were touching down on those country highways all the time.

"Yeah, I heard the sirens. I'm good," I said, though I realized that my voice might have sounded a bit thin, too.

"Is Jane still at school?" Dani asked.

"I haven't heard from her," I said. "I can text her."

"I already did. She didn't answer."

"They were probably playing and she didn't hear her phone." Plus, I added inside my head, the orchestra room is in the basement anyway. She's fine. "I'll try her. Kolby is standing outside right now."

Dani made a noise into the phone. "I'm not surprised. He's nuts. He's not gonna be happy until he gets carried away in a tornado."

"It's not even raining out there."

"Still, he's crazy. One touched down on M Highway."

"I know."

"Call me if you talk to Jane?"


I hung up and sent Jane a quick text. The sirens stopped for a minute and I would have thought maybe the storm was passing, but it had gotten even darker outside, and then they started up again.

I chewed my lip, held my phone in my lap for a few seconds, then called Mom.

"Jersey?" she shouted into the phone. The noise around her was even louder. Emergency horns, police sirens, and the loud chatter and crying of little girls. "Jersey?"

"Dani's mom said a tornado was on M Highway," I said.

"I can't hear her," I heard my mom say, and another woman's voice close by said something about more touchdowns. "Jersey?" Mom repeated.

"I'm here!" I shouted. "Hello! Can you hear me?"

"Jersey? I can't hear you. If you can hear me, go to the basement, okay?" she yelled.

"I am," I said, but I knew she couldn't hear what I was saying, and fear really began to creep into my stomach. She sounded afraid. Mom never sounded afraid. Ever. She never wavered; she was always strong. Even when I fell off the monkey bars in second grade and landed straight on my neck and had to go in an ambulance to the hospital. Mom had simply sat next to me in the ambulance, talking in a low, steady voice, one that calmed me. "Mom? Hello? You there?"

"Everybody this way!" she shouted, her voice sounding farther away from the phone, like maybe she was holding it at her side and had forgotten that it was on. There was a bustling noise, and the crying and talking got louder and more jumbled and then was overtaken by a rumbling sound.

"Mom?" I said.

But she didn't answer. I could hear her shouting, "Get your heads down! Get your heads down!" and lots of screaming and crying. I thought I might have heard glass breaking.

And then I heard nothing but the drone of the sirens outside my window.


"Mom? Mom!" I kept yelling into the phone, even though I knew the connection had been lost. I tried to call again, but the line wouldn't connect. I realized that my hands were shaking, and my fingers didn't want to work around the phone's keypad anymore. I dropped it twice and then tried to call Ronnie, but that call wouldn't go through, either.

The sirens screeched one last time and then abruptly stopped, and I could hear wild clicking against the window—hail—and something else. Something louder. Thumps and thuds and scrapes against the house, like larger items were slamming up against it. Metallic clangs and broken sounds.

For a moment I sat there, frozen on the couch. I thought I heard what sounded like a train rumbling down our street, and I remembered one time in fourth grade when our teacher read us a book that described the sound of a tornado as being something like the sound of a locomotive. I hadn't believed it at the time—it didn't make sense that a tornado could sound like anything but blowing wind. But there it was, the sound of a train passing. I held my breath in frightened anticipation.

The moment stretched around me—the noise getting louder and then muting as my ears began popping—and I gripped my cell phone like I was holding on to the side of a cliff. I tried to be still so I could listen. Maybe I was mistaken. Maybe it was my imagination and there was no train sound out there. I was hearing what I was scared to hear.

But then something really huge hit the house. I heard the tinkling of glass breaking upstairs, on the other end of the house, over where Marin's bedroom was. A loud metallic grating noise seared the air outside as something was pushed down the street. I only had seconds to think about Kolby, to wonder if he was still out there, when the basement window suddenly shattered, ushering in an enormous roar of noise.

I screamed, my voice getting lost in the din. I instinctively covered my head and then scrambled under the pool table, pulling my backpack and cell phone with me.

Noise blasted in and I rolled up in a ball, cradling my head with my arms. I squeezed my eyes shut. There were great, loud creaks and bangs. Glass shattering and shattering and shattering. Thunks as things spun and flew and hit walls. Groans and wooden popping sounds as walls gave, bricks tumbled. Crunching thuds as heavy building materials hit the floors.

I heard these things happening, but it was unclear where exactly they were happening. Was it in the basement? Upstairs? Down the street? Space and time were distorted, and even the most basic things like direction didn't make sense.

Wind whipped the hem of my shirt and pulled at my hair, and I felt out in the open, as if the tornado had somehow gotten into the basement.

Small items blasted across the floor and battered me. I opened my eyes and saw one of Ronnie's work boots thud against my side. Papers whipped around me, bending over my arms. A wall calendar screamed past. An empty milk crate, which had spilled its contents, tumbled up against my shins. An ashtray knocked me in the back of the head, making me cry out and inch my fingers over to where it had hit, feeling the warmth and wetness I was sure was blood. The pool table spun half a circle and came to rest again.


  • * "Vivid and emotional...Torn Away is a superb read."—VOYA, starred review
  • "This is a gut-wrenching and poignant look at the aftermath of natural disaster and the secrets that families keep, written with raw honesty and deep emotion."—Booklist
  • "Brown gives readers a true sense of the horror wrought by the storm and the agony of its aftermath; her ability to create rich, complex characters is once again in evidence."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Brown depicts Jersey's reaction to a frightening, life-altering situation expertly, and the protagonist's voice is authentic...Overall, this is a wrenching story of the will to survive at any cost."—SLJ
  • "This is a satisfying book that explores an intriguing situation: what happens to a girl who loses everything that meant anything, and who learns that there may be more love left in the world."—Library Media Connection

On Sale
Nov 3, 2015
Page Count
304 pages

Jennifer Brown

About the Author

Jennifer Brown writes and lives in the Kansas City, Missouri area with her family. She is the author of Hate List, Torn Away, Thousand Words, Perfect Escape, and Bitter End.

Learn more about this author