The Friday night crowd at Pud’s was a smattering of old men like Crystal’s grandpa from everywhere within fifty miles. They must have hated looking at each other, Crystal thought. There was no escape in faces.
The bartender, Hank, helped Crystal load Grandpa in her car. Grandpa moaned and stretched out on the backseat.
“It’s a long drive for you,” Hank said. “Want some coffee? I could bring some out. We have it in cans.”
“No, thanks,” Crystal said.
Then Hank leaned in as if to confide something, though the parking lot was deserted.
“Your grandpa was in there sayin’ he burned down those homesteads last month,” said Hank.
Crystal didn’t know what to say. “He just likes to talk.”
“Next time I’d prefer he talk somewhere else.”
Crystal looked Hank in the eye. It wasn’t the implied threat that scared her—though her mom had always declared, in a hopeful way, that someday Grandpa would get his “comeuppance”—but that Hank had stepped so close she couldn’t see where his hands were.
“Tell your mom I need to speak with her about his tab,” said Hank.
Pud’s was a mile past Seaton, and the quickest route back to Black Elk Basin was the road that ran directly through town. Instead, Crystal took the Old Deet Highway. It cut southwest around Seaton and met with the reservation road, which turned north to unite with HWY 45 again. She was in no hurry to get home, and it was unlikely Grandpa would wake to notice the difference. Her mom, Diane, was out-of-state, working as a spokesperson for a grass-fed beef operation. Diane had been on her pre-travel cayenne pepper and water diet and was all over the map emotionally. Crystal had let a red pepper go bad and Diane started sobbing when she found it in the back of the fridge. “From now on, you can buy your own vegetables, because I am through.” She took little high-pitched breaths between her words. In her hand, the red pepper looked like a shriveled heart.
Halfway home, Crystal saw the tornadoes in a dark field and missed her turn. At first, they looked like one tornado—pale blue like cotton candy, and the clouds above them were dark, and the sky in between was dark blue, and the tips of the grass in the cow pastures looked like little blue flames. She knew she’d passed the sign, and when she looked back at the road there was a deer in her headlights. It was a small buck, washed white, leaping across the asphalt. She stomped on the brakes, and when she opened her eyes again the road was empty. The buck had vaulted over the fence on the other side of the road. She tried to remember if the tires had screeched. She was meticulous about proper tire pressure and good brake pads. She eased the car onto the shoulder, her hands like crumpled white spiders on the wheel.
The clouds seemed to be lit from below, maybe from a low moon beyond the trees that stood thick on the far edge of the field, where a canal carried water all the way from the reservoir in Black Elk Basin. She counted the tornadoes. There were three. Before it had been hard to tell, but now that she had a chance to sit still, each seemed sliced out of the sky in a perfect funnel shape.
A tornado had touched down near Seaton in the eighties, around the time the first disco club was built. The tornado must have seemed like something sent from God—but then it just took out a few yards of fencing and fell apart, like it wasn’t worth it, like no one was ever going to learn. That’s exactly how everyone described it—that it fell apart. She knew what they meant. She’d watched one do that on TV. It looked like it had been cut down the middle and its pieces flayed away like dry husks.
These tornadoes weren’t the erratic type at all. They spooned each other and danced away, abdomens gracefully bowing out, their movements self-contained and purposeful.
She turned off the ignition and cut the headlights. There was a buzzing sound—really a non-sound, like wind rolling over on itself. The tornadoes were about four hundred yards up the road, but the trees were hardly moving.
“The hell was that?” Grandpa said. He grasped her head cushion and lurched forward. The side of his face was creased from his windbreaker.
“I’m watching these tornadoes,” Crystal said.
Grandpa squinted at the dash.
“Can you see them?”
He squinted harder.
She handed him a thermos of coffee. “Drink this.”
He took a sip.
“It’s cold,” he said.
But he took several long drinks, anyway.
“I gotta piss,” he said, and got out.
The white of Grandpa’s shirt, moving unsteadily down the ditch, quartered itself until it was just the top of his shoulders. Then it disappeared.
Grandpa was her dad’s father. She recognized the similarity between the two men—broad noses and balding heads, like twin Picassos—in a few photos in the old album her mom kept in the garage. All the pictures of Grandpa were taken before she was six; after that, there was no record of him being in her life.
When she was little, she was taken from Grandpa’s truck at a gas station while he was in the building paying. She’d told everyone the man—who turned out to own a restaurant in Nebraska—had dragged her from her Grandpa’s vehicle, when in fact she’d been outside poking a dead bird with a stick. The man had simply pulled up beside her and scooped her into his car, pulling the stick from her hand and tossing it from the moving vehicle in one motion. Police found her and her kidnapper an hour later at a Dunkin Donuts in Seaton. She’d had a doughnut and her kidnapper drank coffee and told her how he’d always wanted a daughter who ate doughnuts with pink frosting and sprinkles.
That Christmas, Grandpa left her a bike on the porch. It had a piece of an old red work-shirt tied in a bow around the handle-bars. After that, whenever they were together for holidays, or when she got her drivers’ license and visited him on weekends, he seemed to grow smaller and smaller. His pants, where they dragged on the floor, were stained like the part of a rock that’s underground.
She didn’t remember much about the drive once the Nebraska man picked her up. It hadn’t been very memorable. He’d had the radio on, she thought. She didn’t even remember what he looked like. But she did remember how big the doughnut looked in her hands, and how the sprinkles crunched in her mouth like grit.
While she waited for Grandpa to climb back out of the ditch, she turned on the radio to see if there was anything about the tornadoes. On one of the stations, a female caller was saying that she thought her husband might be going to hell.
“Has he been saved?” the host asked.
“I don’t know. He’s been baptized.”
“I mean, has he saved himself by going to the Lord and asking for Jesus to enter his heart? Did he ask the Lord for His forgiveness?”
“Well,” said the woman. “I’m not sure.”
“Do you think the Lord cares all that much about a splash of water on your head?”
Crystal went through every station, getting static, and wound up back at the Christian one.
“When we die, we are not far from where we are now,” the host was saying. “You must keep your heart open.”
Her mom wasn’t religious, but sometime after Crystal’s dad left and the responsibility of raising Crystal and picking up her husband’s father from a growing number of dive-bars fell squarely on her shoulders, she became drawn to Russian folktales. In these stories, people were hacked apart for trifling matters or girls fled to the forest so their own fathers wouldn’t marry them. Eventually, Crystal’s mother made up her own morality tales about foxes that led boys or girls into burning fields, which she would tell in a Russian accent while sitting on the edge of Crystal’s bed in the dark with a glass of wine in her hand. The fox would say something like, “My pups are out there. Go save them.” But there weren’t any pups. Crystal could see it perfectly. The fox was red. The burning grass was red.
The fox would sit waiting for you to realize it had brought you there to die. But Crystal would go find out if there were pups, anyway. She would tell her mom this, and her mom would say, her accent thickening, “Boat fox ees ly-ng! Das moral of story. You don tar-ahst some people. Dey’ll tell you de gots something to save when deys don’ts.”
The moon shifted in the clouds. About halfway between her car and the tornadoes, Grandpa was walking in the road. Crystal could just make out his shirt, like a kite wobbling in the dark. She jumped out of the car, realizing only after she was sprinting that it would have been easier to drive up beside him. She felt, through the soles of her sneakers, a thrumming, like there was a vacuum cleaner running just below the earth’s surface.
When she was close enough to see the reflection of his slick white scalp, he staggered and collapsed on the shoulder of the road. She caught up to him and dropped to her knees by his side. He’d slumped into a halfsitting position, with his legs crossed. She put a hand on his shoulder. He looked up at her, his eyes luminous. She waited, noticing how small the ball of his shoulder felt—like a little calf ’s. Grandpa shifted his shoulder out from under her hand and looked off at the tornadoes, which ducked behind one another, shy and watchful. A few deer grazing in the field lifted their heads to look at Crystal and Grandpa. She wondered if this was the sort of place—out in these fields after dark—where tornadoes popped up and soundlessly swooped around each other every other night. She wondered how quickly one of them could bow out and scoop her up.
“There’s no wind,” Grandpa said.
She pulled him up and they walked back to the car. He sagged against her. It was slow-going, and she kept looking over her shoulder. When they made it back, Grandpa got in the passenger’s seat and turned on the radio. The man on the Christian station was still talking. There was a different caller.
“I want to know how a child can disappear like that?” the caller asked. “When we all know he’s alive out there, lost.”
They were talking about the Flowers boy who’d gone missing after his dad shot up the rest of his family. That had been a month ago.
“Do you feel he’s alive?” asked the host.
“Yes, I do.”
“I do, too,” he assured her.
“I tell the women I work with. They don’t believe me. They think I’m crazy.” She laughed. “But I can’t explain it—I know he’s out there.”
Crystal sat with her fingers folded over the steering wheel. Everything beyond the dashboard looked pushed further away than it was before, like the car had slid back a couple of feet while they were gone. The threads holding everything in place seemed so delicate they could be shattered by a single shifting atom.
“Nobody thinks about him, but I can’t stop thinking about him,” the woman said. “Sometimes I get so angry.”
“We’ve all been lost to a fallen world,” said the host.
“Indifference makes me angry,” the woman said.
Grandpa pulled out his flask and poured its contents into the thermos.
Crystal concentrated on the strange dance in the field. In the 1800s, riders passing over alkali fields had visions of Roman amphitheaters rising out of the prairie—that’s what the old newspapers said, that the alkali made them hallucinate. A teacher had told her that. The riders thought the ampitheatre was the work of spirits. Crystal’s veins felt muddy with old adrenaline. It was just seeing Grandpa in the road. She fastened her seat belt and looked over at him. He was tilted back in his seat, his mouth open.
“You need to buckle up,” she told him.
He made a sound and his hands floundered around at his sides.
Crystal got out and went around to his side of the car. She started pulling the seat belt across him, then stopped and got his windbreaker out of the backseat and pulled it around him like a blanket.
“Honey,” he said when she was done.
In the moonlight, with his eyes closed, he looked like a different person. She placed her hand on his head, reassured by its warmth. His hand tottered up to her cheek and patted it twice. Then it drifted back to his side. Crystal fastened his seat belt, and moved his elbow out of the way before she shut the door.
As she was walking back to the driver’s side, headlights swooped toward her. A cloud of dust ringed the bottom half of the approaching car as it passed the tornadoes. Crystal was already back inside when it pulled up. The window was down. It was Maggie Delroy, tendons quivering, ready to push words through her throat. Maggie used to work in the same hair salon as Crystal’s mother, but now she waitressed at the Denny’s in Sheffield. She thrust her face out the window, her perm grazing the frame.
“Wow, what was that?” Maggie shouted, though it was as quiet as before. “Do you see that?”
Crystal thought about shaking her head like she had no idea what Maggie was talking about.
Maggie peered over her, at Grandpa, who was asleep. Crystal wanted to roll up her window. Maggie said, “Giving your grandpa a ride?”
“Uh huh.” Maggie wore red lipstick and smiled and the lipstick was on her teeth. “It’s awful late.”
When Maggie worked at the salon, she left color in too long because she was too busy gossiping. The Scotts’ boy once drug a port-a-potty into her driveway after a powwow, and tourists used it for a whole weekend while she was gone. Some people still pulled off there and peed.
Maggie tapped her nails against her steering wheel. “How’s your mom?” she asked. “I don’t run into her anymore since she got that fancy new job.”
Crystal had some homework on the dash and Maggie was eyeing the scattered papers like they might be private documents. “You know, I just want to say, this whole community is so grateful that you’re with us. Especially after this Flowers thing.”
Crystal had no idea what Maggie was talking about.
Maggie lowered her voice. “That could have been you.”
Crystal looked at Grandpa. His mouth was flung open again, but she had the feeling he was listening.
“Luckily, they found you in time,” said Maggie. “I was in the store talking with your grandpa when it happened. I was as much to blame as him. I mean this whole mess is terrifying. It got me thinking about you, is all. It could have been so much worse.”
“He’s a good man.”
Maggie smiled. “Well,” she said, “I’m off. Gotta get home to the kids! Drive safely. You’re not going toward the”—she twirled her finger in the air—“thing out there?”
“I mean, I think it’s fine, but you never know. Drove right past it—can you believe that?”
Only after Maggie’s tail-lights had vanished over a hill did Crystal start back for the turn-off to the reservation road. Grandpa was awake, swaying in his seat as if ruled by secret tides. “Did I ever tell you,” he said, “when you were born you were like a baby manatee? I held you and I said, Christ, she’s like a little manatee.” He smiled out at the road.
As Crystal eased over the cattle-guard, she got a last glimpse of the tornado—just one now, driving its point into the dirt beyond the outline of her grandpa’s face. She sped up. The car crested a rise, and the passenger window went black.
On the radio, the man was talking in a strange language. Maybe it was Aramaic. Then she realized he was saying a name. It was the name of that kid. “Ianflowers, Ianflowers, Ian Flowers, I-an Flow-ers—”
“Jesus.” She twisted the dial until music came on. The noise would keep her awake.
She felt like she was seeing everything through a plastic bag. The kid’s name was repeating itself in her head. Night streamed past them on all sides. If it were winter, they’d be able to see the mountains creeping white over the prairie. Crystal imagined the white there now, except it wasn’t snow. The mountains were lit from inside, like beacons.
Grandpa was trying to talk. Or maybe he was laughing. His reflection in the windshield was jumping with shadows.
He’d taken her to the county fair one summer, a year before the kidnapping. They’d looked at the pygmy goats—her favorite—and gone on the roller coaster. The roller coaster cars shook violently from side to side, as if sifting the people inside. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” Grandpa had said, gripping her hand. She wondered if he’d truly been scared, or just acting for her benefit.