Fields of corn stretched beyond Jim’s gaze and towards the graying horizon where clouds rustled against the wind. It was much more beautiful when the sun was visible rising over the husks. When the weather was clear, Jim would sit on the engine of the tractor and feel the cool breeze brush his cheeks as the rising sun warmed his body. Not today. He sat quietly, his face down and jacket zipped tightly shut steering the green John Deere tractor back to the shed. As it puttered to a stop just beyond the barn, Jim stepped down, his brown leather boots sinking deep into the mud. He waded his way towards the front of the barn for one last check of the horses and cows before he went back to the house. Usually Jim checked all the pens and enclosures before he went in for breakfast, but today was different and he had to change his set routine, which was something he hated to do.
Kathy was usually the one up by now making breakfast, the smell of bacon and hash thick in the air. However, she was nearly a hundred miles away at her mother’s house today. That woman always needed help with something. Most of the time it tended to be some small errand or task that she complained about having to be done. It always seemed to be a point of contention between the two of them. And when Kathy jumped at every problem her mother told her about over the phone the issue only tended to get more heated. Kathy tried explaining what it was this time while leaning out of the truck window before she left. Jim fought the urge to get into it with her and just waved goodbye as he walked away from her. He wanted to tell her how foolish she was about having to fix everything for that woman; it just made him burn inside. Jim’s mother was a strong woman and even after his dad died she was up on the roof the next week replacing shingles that were old and worn.
But there might have been some little inkling that the distance between them was more due to the farm than anything else. Kathy never did like farming. Jim remembered when they were in high school she’d told him about her big plans about how she wanted to get out of Indiana and make a new name for herself. He’d laughed telling her, “What’s wrong with the name you got? Ain’t it good enough? Why do you need a new one?” He automatically assumed that after they got married that she was happy, though the fights over money seemed to be worse now than ever before. It should have been his first clue that this life he had tried to make for her wasn’t living up to her own expectations. The fabric was beginning to fray, something his mom used to tell him when she’d found a problem that usually involved buying a new whatever it was that ended up falling apart.
When she did go to her mother’s house every few months, Shauna and the cooking were left up to his discretion. Ridiculous he thought. And she knew that it wasn’t like he could leave the farm, well not without some serious planning on his own part making sure that everything was covered. He would have to arrange with Everett Miller up the road to send one of his boys by every day to throw some feed in for the horses and cows, change the water and make sure that the chickens were safe and secure. Was Kathy just tired of being a farmer’s wife? She’d become more and more distant ever since the foreclosure letter arrived from the bank a few months earlier. Jim sighed heavily, he felt the burden of everything on his shoulders almost pressing him deeper into the mud. He adjusted the locks on the door to the horse pen trying to shake off the bad feelings as he started back towards the house.
Jim pushed his hands underneath the cold water rushing from the kitchen faucet, scrubbing them furiously with no soap just trying to get the dried mud off. He pondered all the things that he needed to do before Shauna got up to go to school. He had to make sure at least she had one meal in her before he dropped her at the bus stop.
He twisted the faucet off and wiped his hands on the dishtowel that hung on the cabinet door. Not bothering to put it back, he threw it on the counter as he heard a rustling upstairs. She was up. Sure enough as if a stampede trampled across the upstairs floor, Shauna made her way from the bedroom into the bathroom. Jim thought it was strange that she would brush her teeth before eating and not after, but at least she did it without him having to remind her. That was Kathy’s job, yelling up the stairs every morning, “Come on honey we need to get going. Brush faster.” Kathy was the one to be on time; always knowing what was going on and where everything was. Especially the times when Jim forgot where he’d put the wrench for the tractor. She would pull it out of a drawer; hold it out with one hand, the other firmly placed on her hip and say,
“You left it on the porch, again.”
The pipes begin to rattle in the walls and he knew that Shauna had either turned on the faucet or flushed the toilet. There was so much to fix in this old house. The boards in the upstairs hallway sat squarely on the plywood below, mainly because Jim hadn’t found the time to pad them. He even needed to fix the pipes, but as usual he’d forgotten about it until he heard the walls rattle. “I’ll do it tomorrow,” he said, pulling a carton of eggs out of the fridge and setting them on the counter.
He cranked the radio up and pushed a cast-iron frying pan onto the stove. Some old honky-tonk music sang loudly throughout the kitchen along with the familiar sizzle of eggs. There was something missing, he thought, rubbing his hands over his chin in concentric circles. Bacon. Opening the fridge door Jim pulled a heaping plate of bacon from the bottom shelf. Who needs a supermarket when you got Everett Miller’s farm just down the road with pigs galore? Jim and Everett had known each other far longer than each cared to admit and with a few bushels of corn Jim had his pick of the runts in the pack. He slapped several pieces of bacon around the outer edges of the pan.
Jim turned towards a shiny metal toaster sitting on the counter near the sink; he scoffed at it and decided that he would prefer to do it his mother’s way today. He turned on the oven, opened the door and threw several slices of bread onto a black cookie sheet inside. Hearing the sound of horses galloping across the floor above his head, Jim laughed to himself as he waited for the door to her room to slam shut.
“Hurry up, breakfast is almost ready.”
“Comin’,” she yelled.
The music on the radio was interrupted by an old crackly voice reporting the possibility of increased and severe thunderstorms in Adams, Cass, Fulton, Jay, La Porte and Noble counties, the chance of rain was at 85%. Jim paused trying to listen closer as the man then explained how the National Weather Service was not issuing a tornado warning. At least that was one worry off of his mind. He hoped that there wouldn’t be a tornado not at least until after the crop was gone and off to market. Jim couldn’t even begin to imagine what would have happened if they had issued the warning. Having to cram Shauna in the basement that hadn’t been used since before she was born and waiting out a storm that would have certainly changed their lives forever. Perhaps Kathy was right, that putting all your eggs in one basket was just too much. That everyone needed a plan or at least a way out. He sighed heavily. This was not something that he wanted to think about and especially not now. The weather service knew what they were talking about and Jim had nothing to worry about, because there wasn’t going to be a tornado today, and that was good enough for him. The voice vanished as the song finished playing. Jim pressed his hands firm against the edge of the counter as he peered out the kitchen window towards the cornfield. He remembered one year when a freak storm pulled acres of corn right out of the ground and laced them across half the county; the insurance barely covered most of the cost that year.
He didn’t need it, he thought, he just wanted to farm without all the hassle and worry. To just do the job that his grandfather and father had done before him. Jim rubbed his face and then slapped himself across the cheek, as if to knock some sense back into himself. His father never worried and the farm was still here after all those years, after all those storms he’d endured. He opened the oven door to see if the toast was ready, but it was only slightly browned. He pulled the cookie sheet from the oven and set it on the counter next to the unused eggs.
“Shauna you done yet? Breakfast is ready and now all you’re gonna get is cold food.”
She didn’t answer, but he heard the door squeak against the hinges and the creaking of each stair as she moved down. He broke two eggs into the pan. She must have decided on those brown boots as he listened to the banging of their heel on the wooden boards. Jim quickened his pace as he scooped the eggs onto a plate with two pieces of bacon and toast, and then pushed it onto the table where silverware lay strewn in piles of knives, forks and spoons.
Shauna stepped into the kitchen her hair unkempt. She just looked at Jim holding a hairbrush in one hand and hair ties in the other. His eyes opened wide. Kathy usually did her hair the night before she left and he’d never had to worry about it before. Jim did his own hair by brushing a wet comb through it, but this he feared would not be as easy.
Jim motioned for Shauna to hand him the brush and turned her around where she stood. He tried kneeling behind her but ended up having to sit on the cold tile floor because he was too tall. Looking at the brush he was a little unsure about where to start. It was as if he had never used it before in his life. Jim bit his lip and dug the brush into her hair towards the top of her scalp. Shauna let out a yelp. He checked to see if she was okay, but she didn’t respond. He continued pulling the brush down the length of her hair. She let out another yelp.
“Shauna are you alright? Did I hurt you?”
She turned her head, “No I’m okay.”
She turned away just as Jim caught a glimpse of a tear trickle down her cheek. He bit his lip harder than before determined to not hurt her. This was just like combing a horse’s mane he told himself. No difference. Well except for the fact that she is a girl and horses are usually, well, horses. After he’d brushed her hair straight and after a few more yelps from Shauna, she handed him her hair ties. What did Kathy do with these? He thought. Jim tried to separate her hair into two nice ponytails and then twisted the ties around the hair. Awkward as it was, her hair was finished. As he stood up he realized that both ponytails were jutting off at odd angles. He figured that if she didn’t know he wouldn’t tell her. As she turned around a smile flashed across her face.
“You look like a farmer today, Shauna.”
She looked down at her clothes and smiled again at him. She was wearing overalls over a red t-shirt and of course the brown leather boots Kathy had given Shauna for her last birthday. They looked a little small on her and he was probably right, as he watched her face winch with every step she took towards the table. He admired how much she looked like Kathy. His little girl was growing up. Her brown hair, brown eyes and lanky physique were the complete opposite of Jim’s huge frame. But they were alike in one way, brute strength. Even though she was only six, Shauna was the one kid in school that you didn’t want to get into a fight with. Just like Jim she had a grip that would make you think twice about wanting a handshake.
“You ready for today?”
“Of course,” she replied. “I was studying, and I know them all by heart.”
“Okay,” he said, pulling the orange juice from the fridge.
Shauna sat in front of the plate Jim had prepared for her, grimacing at the burnt bacon, which looked more like a piece of charred wood than it did food. She lifted a piece with two fingers to examine it further, smelled it, and then dropped it back onto the plate. Jim wasn’t a world-class chef, but he could figure out what he needed to do in a kitchen. He always laughed when people assumed that farmers could just cook. He was the prime example, if Kathy didn’t cook he would just eat the corn off the husk every morning rather than cook a meal.
“I don’t think this is bacon.”
“What? Sure it is, what’s wrong with it?”
“Mommy doesn’t make it like this. Her bacon is crispy and…”
Jim snatched the piece of bacon off the plate and took a bite, coughed then swallowed.
“Seems…fine to me,” he replied setting it back on the plate.
Shauna grimaced again and pushed the plate away from her slowly as the bottom scratched against the wooden tabletop.
“You gonna test me.”
“What do you need me to test you for?”
Shauna turned in her chair and stared back at Jim. Kathy usually tested her in the morning before they left or on the way to the bus stop. He barely spent time with Shauna lately, as he was out in the field before either was up and not done until well after the two had left. Jim searched for a word for her but he couldn’t remember the list that she had given him the day before.
“Sure…umm…how do you spell,” Jim looked out the window towards the cornfield with the worry of the crops surfacing in his mind. “How do you spell tornado?”
“Daddy, that’s not even on my list.”
“It’s a good word, go ahead and spell it.”
“Fine. Tornado. T-O-R,” she paused staring at the ceiling. “N-A-D-O, tornado.”
“Good job, honey.”
“You coming today?” Shauna said.
“To the Spelling Bee?”
“Oh that. Sure as soon as I’m done with the back ten, but that’s never gonna happen if you don’t eat your breakfast, now will it?”
Shauna flashed a smile and ate quickly, whining at the charred bacon flavor.
Jim tried to get her to slow down, but you’d have better luck stopping an avalanche than you would be at stopping a six-year old. He quickly asked her between bites if she had taken the medicine the doc prescribed for her.
“Bis mournin,” she tried to mumble with half a slice of toast stuffed in her mouth.
Jim nodded as he turned away from her and began to pick at the remaining eggs in the pan using a piece of burnt bacon as a spoon.
Jim’s green Ford pick-up truck skidded out of the dirt driveway. He watched the wave of the field as he passed each row. It was probably one of the few things that he admired. The way the corn bent slightly with the wind as if they were waving goodbye in some unknown language. He turned to see Shauna clicking her belt in place; she was in turn waving at him.
“Why you waving at me?”
“I’m not waving at you. I’m waving at the corn. Mommy always does it when she takes me to the bus stop,” she said.
“Why? It’s not like you’re not coming back.”
“Mommy says we should always say goodbye when we leave.”
It didn’t take long for them to reach the bus stop. The dirt road extended in both directions just in front of the Miller Farm and seemed to have no end. The bus stop sign sat lonely between the fields on either side of the road. There weren’t any buildings in sight except for the Miller Farm perched on a sea of corn and depending on season usually all you could see was corn or wheat or snow. He remembered standing at this sign day after day, year after year until well into high school. Jim stepped onto the break petal a little harder than usual screeching the breaks and jerking the truck to a stop just beyond the sign. A thunderclap unfurled across the sky, shaking the windows of the truck. Jim looked out the window and up towards the gray clouds, they swirled around as if stirred by some mysterious unseen spoon. In the distance just over a telephone pole, lightning streaked across the sky and down towards the ground.
“Alright we’re here. You have a good day.”
“You’re not gonna wait with me?”
Jim looked away from Shauna and back at the horizon, his mind catching up with him. Why would he leave his little girl standing all by herself, especially in this weather on the side of the road?
“Mommy always waits with me.”
Jim stared back at the sign and sighed deeply.
“I’ll wait,” he said.
Shauna flashed a smile once again at him. She unlocked her seatbelt and started rummaging through her pink backpack. Ripping out a crumpled sheet of paper she handed it to Jim who looked at it quizzically before he took it from her grasp. A list of words, probably about thirty stretched down the page.
“Do you want me to test you?”
Shauna nodded, her ponytails bouncing from side to side. She perked up in the seat turning her body towards him with her leg propped sideways. He looked back at the page for a good word to start with.
“How do you spell,” he said, his finger tracing the page, “confident.”
Shauna’s face lit up, he figured that she must have known this one.
“Confident. C-O-N,” she paused sounding out the word making an F sound under her breath.
Before she could get the last letter out a loud boom rocked the truck, and maybe even moved it a bit. Jim looked straight out the front window to see a swirling cloud begin to reach down from the sky towards the ground. He’d never seen one this close before. As he stared at it something about the way it moved made him freeze in place and an abject fear washed over his whole body. The air in his lungs felt trapped. He fumbled with the key in the ignition and started the car, whipping it into reverse he yelled at Shauna to get her belt on. She screamed, but still managed to get her seatbelt on as Jim backed the truck into the cornfield before whipping the truck back towards the house.
The rearview mirror was filled with nothing but graying clouds, swirling and moving towards him. No matter how hard he pushed the petal down it just didn’t seem to get any smaller. He sped through the street ignoring the stop sign near the house. His heart racing, he jerked the truck to a stop next to the basement entrance. He grabbed Shauna who had already undone her belt and was hastily reaching for him, her face in terror with tears streaming down her cheeks. He pulled the heavy wooden door open and looked back at the tornado. It had to be at least a hundred feet across. Something stopped him, he couldn’t move. Was he terrified? Of course he was terrified, but that would make him run faster not stop him in his tracks. He just stared at the twister getting closer, the wind speed increasing around him pulling, tugging at his clothes and hat. Shauna screamed at him from the basement.
His face lurched towards hers catching her tear filled brown eyes in the shadows. Jumping inside he tried to pull the door shut with all the strength he could muster.
The wind was strong, even stronger than him. Despite being afraid, the only thing he could think about was making sure that Shauna was safe. The thoughts of corn and livelihood disappeared as he screamed, forcing the door to the shelter closed.
As the door slammed against the jam and locked, Jim lost his footing and fell down the remaining six steps to the concrete floor below. Shauna ran up next to him her eyes filled with tears. This was her first tornado. He lifted his hand and settled it on her shoulder as she began to wheeze. She hadn’t taken her medicine. It wasn’t like it mattered much now; the medicine cabinet was on the second floor of the house. He couldn’t run that fast even if he wanted too. Jim stumbled to his feet and felt a sharp pain shoot through his upper back. He told Shauna to sit down next to the grey work bench in the far corner because it was bolted to the floor; at least they had something to grab onto just incase the twister tore the door off.
The wind howled, beating against the shelter door. Jim could hear the twister close in on the house and felt it shake the very foundation. Even though they were at least seven feet under the ground the cement walls and wooden framed ceiling still shook. Dust and wood chips fell from the old wooden ceiling filling the air making it hard to breathe. Shauna coughed and pushed herself between the wall and the workbench. She pulled her legs up to her chest and wrapped her arms around her knees. Jim stood near the door brushing the dirt from his pants and stared at the rattling hinges on the door. He hoped the bolts would hold.
Jim wanted to just be sitting quietly on his tractor with the breeze against his cheeks without a care in the world. But it was too much dreaming as the rattling snapped him back to reality and towards the realization that Shauna was probably scared out of her mind. She was likely worried about Peanut her horse and whether he was safe in the barn. He should have at least let the horses go and given them a fighting chance to survive. Even Jim wasn’t foolish enough to try and fight nature. You let nature roll right over you and then try to pick up the pieces later, his dad used to say. He wasn’t about to let Shauna grow up without a dad, who was gonna protect her against her first boyfriend or…he shook his head quickly. Jim was still here and the best thing was to make sure his daughter was safe.
Shauna was still in the back of the shelter, her face now buried in her knees, her breathing was clearly audible even with the wind beating against the door. Jim walked over and sat down beside her with a thump. Putting his arm around her, pulling her close to his chest.
“Everything’s gonna be alright. It’s just a little storm, nothing to be worried about. We’ll be out of here in no time. You know your dad has been through a few of these before, you know.”
She sniffled and raised her head. “You have? What happened? Were you scared?”
“You bet I was scared. And you know what, it’s alright to be scared, especially when tornados are around. You know what you can do?”
“What?” Shauna asked.
“You can think about all the stuff you’re gonna get to do when its over. We’ll go ride Peanut. How does that sound?”
Shauna’s eyes lit up. “Yeah and you can ride with me, right. We can ride all around the house and the farm. Can we?”
“We sure can. Why don’t you lay your head on my lap and close your eyes, and before you know it you’ll be out there riding Peanut.”
Jim didn’t have the heart to tell his daughter that it probably would never happen, but she’d stopped crying and at least she was trying to sleep. He brushed the knuckles of his fingers over her head and shoulder. At least her mind was dreaming of Peanut and their ride.
Tornados came and went at about the same pace as visitors or tourists passing through on their way to some ridiculous attraction. He supposed it was just a way of life for him now, and it was still better than being in an earthquake. Jim started to remember all the storms that he had been in but he kept picturing the storm when he was fifteen, he had to help his dad re-tile the roof. Nearly every shingle was stripped off the house and the crop was flattened, but they still managed to make it through that season. Then there was the tornado after he and Kathy got married, all the windows got blown out that year, the tractor disappeared too, probably still floating up there somewhere, but even with the barn flattened they made it. Jim pressed his hand over Shauna’s ear.
Jim began to worry for Kathy wondering if she were sitting in front of her mother’s television hoping that they had made it into the shelter in time. She would probably be sitting there on her mother’s khaki green couch. Her mother’s knitting would be lying all over the floor, only the projects that she told herself she needed help finishing but really never had any intention of finishing.
Jim remembered the last time he had to drag himself down to her mother’s house in Fort Wayne, when the bathroom pipes had burst in the walls. Since her mother never trusted strangers to work on anything, he was the one delegated to fix the problem. That seemed to be Jim’s only reason for visiting her, when something serious happened that Kathy couldn’t fix herself. Despite all that, he wished that he was there right now and didn’t have to stay here with Shauna wheezing on this cold cement floor. He wanted so much to be out of this basement, away from this house and able to walk around in the clear air. To forget the howling winds rapping against the wooden door. The wind now sounded like dogs trying to rip them both apart, eating and eating and spitting everything out with a hunger that never seemed satisfied.
Why was he even worried? Kathy was safe and Shauna was right here with him. He knew Shauna must be just as afraid as him, but she was trying to hide it just like him. Maybe she was more like him than he even cared to admit himself. Just because she was a girl didn’t mean that she had to be like her mother. She never wore dresses like her mother or smelled like a girl. No flower scented perfume for his little girl, just the fragrance of nature. Jim used to like the scents that Kathy wore in high school, but over time he guessed even that faded. Shauna wore mostly overalls or jeans, and those boots that didn’t fit. Jim started to watch her eyes as they twitched underneath her eyelids, only to open them every few minutes looking around as if she was trapped in a dream and then shutting them even tighter trying to block out the images and sounds.
Jim wiped his hand against Shauna’s cheek trying to get a dirty smudge off but ended up leaving a darker spot behind. There was never enough warning for these things, those damned sirens were more of a nuisance. Science had advanced, but still with all those tornadoes, twisters or whatever you want to call them, there was just no warning. He listened to the wind. It was almost humming now, as he started to close his eyes lulled by the steady sound and just then the sirens began blaring in the distance. He opened his eyes, now even more frustrated, the storm had already hit; after the radio said no tornado warning, now those damn sirens go off. What did it matter now? As if the warning would have made any difference, he thought, there still wouldn’t have been time to save anything. He pictured himself trying to cram the corn or some of the animals down the small cellar door with Shauna inside. He should have just been happy that at least they were both still alive.
Jim sighed deeply, letting his breath exhale, sounding as ominous as the storm raging outside. Everything just started to calm him now, the steady sound of the wind, the useless crackle of the radio in the corner, the blaring sirens in the distance, and Shauna’s wheezing that was beginning to lessen. He brushed the side of his hand against her face causing her to jostle in her sleep. He placed his hand on her shoulder to comfort her, but he wasn’t sure if it was more for his own sake or hers. It would probably be another few hours before Jim got to take his first look at the damage, but for know he leaned his head against the cement wall and closed his eyes. He pictured the cool breeze brushing his cheeks, Shauna in the fields riding Peanut and Kathy hugging onto him smiling and laughing.