Tornado Alley

SHORT STORY | TORNADO ALLEY

"All she could see was the hole in her life, where once
there had been a person who would
never be there again.
Only the hole would be there
and in the hole
was a darkness so dark that the light of the
world couldn't reach it..."

...Larry McMurtry, THE LATE CHILD,
Simon & Schuster, New York, New York, 1995

 

***

 

Sophie bolts upright out of a deep sleep and shouts over the roar of the wind for me to pull over. There's a gash up a draw where she goes, a neat cut slashed by some reckless river where she does her business in the wheatgrass and then races back to the truck. "Let's boogie," she says, flashing me a witch's smile that would have chilled me to the bone had I not seen her practice it in front of the motel mirror a hundred times.

Up ahead, a car explodes out of a spooky black wall of rain and growls low and mean as it shoots by. The guy driving is not who I thought he was at first, so I hammer down and don't look back.

Sophie's hunched down in the yellow summer dress I bought her back in Pocatello. She's blowing bubbles and twirling a wayward strand of dirty blond hair around her finger like she thinks it's a baton. She's giving me the same kind of look my old Labrador Retriever used to give me when he had a bone broken off in it's throat and wondered why I wasn't doing anything about it. I've been waiting for two days for the words to come that will make her feel safe again, but the words stay where they are.

As if reading my thoughts, she snuggles up against my shoulder and moves her lips like she wants to share some treasured secret with me but can't, because she'd forgotten to screw the lid on the jar she keeps them in. I don't have the heart to tell her that, where we're going tonight, there won't be any time for sleep or dreaming, or sharing secrets.

I have no doubt that Jake "The Snake" and his newest sidekick Sammy Rats are out there somewhere stinking up the countryside, looking for us, and because of Jake's Reno Teamster connections, I'm sure he knows exactly what truck I'm driving. I kick myself for not changing the plates in Salt Lake, but there hadn't been time. Even so, I'm off the clock, logged out, and gambling that he doesn't know for sure where we're headed, although I'm not betting the farm on it.

As for Sammy, I've known him since we went to junior high together back in Mississippi, where he, his psycho brothers Floyd and Lester, and I used to run together, until that is, I took off for Reno with their little sister Angie and a suitcase full of stolen cash that I was supposed to hide until things cooled off, and then split with them, which I never did. Fortunately for me, shortly after Angie and I left Mississippi for good, Floyd and Lester got nabbed for a botched armed robbery and are still doing five-to-ten each at Parchman Farm up in Sunflower County. Only Sammy had the sense to get the hell out of Dodge before the law caught up with him, and the very day he found out Angie and I were in Nevada, he hit the road for Reno. The second he got there, he put the word out on the street that he'd pay a shitload of cash to anyone who could help him find Angie and me, and once Jake heard about that, there was no way he could resist joining forces with Sammy. And if there's one guy on earth besides Jake the Snake that I don't want to see coming at me with a knife in a dark alley, it's Sammy Rats.

I'm lead footing my Kenworthless C-1680 eighteen-wheeler north, trying to beat the storm that's building off to the west, when a jagged slice of dry lightening slashes across the windshield and drives my rig back on its springs. But as fast as it began, the storm suddenly lifts, leaving behind a haunting calm that's hovering above the roof like a ghost. Sophie's snoring like a lumberjack on Xanax, impervious to it all. She'll need her strength to get through this storm, so I let her be.

Up ahead pink and black clouds are beginning to mass and the rain begins again, teasing at first, then erupting into a blizzard of hail, pounding away at the alpine fir and Lodgepole pines lining the highway, then firing everything else it's got at us. I can almost hear the scratching of a thousand mice feet skittering through the beaten down barley fields, heading for their holes like nervous tourists, running for cover under the soon-to-be ruins of doomed bridges. It'll be a killer, this storm.

When I look over to check on Sophie, her fingers begin to flutter wildly in the heavy air, and, suddenly she springs up out of a nightmare, and cries out in her half-sleep; "Only Jesus can save you now, Pops."

Not very likely. Nobody's saving anybody tonight. Not as long as Jake and Sammy Rats are still out there, combing the countryside looking for us like the glue-sniffing losers they are. Jake can't be happy about me accepting his deal to snatch Sophie, and then not delivering her to him in Tahoe like we'd agreed. And God knows Sammy's got a hard on for me stealing his little sister away from him. But if either one of those predatory weasels do anything to hurt her, they sure as hell better hope they don't find me.

I haven't told Sophie, or anybody else, how much I'd loved Angie, and I don't think I ever really got over losing her. I forgave her eventually for divorcing me for no goddamned good enough reason, and even forgave her for not telling me she was pregnant with Sophie at the time. I wasn't exactly a prime catch in those bad ole days and who can blame her? I had been sure I'd never talk to her again, but the night Sophie tracked me down out by the Reno Airport, before leaving for Tahiti to paint naked chicks and eat coconuts, she talked me into calling her. But after I'd explained things to Angie what Jake had done to get even with her, and me, she just couldn't resist -out of habit I presume- calling me names and screaming about what she was going to do to my johnson with a pair of sewing scissors when she got her hands on me for taking so long to let her know Sophie was alright. But there was no anger in it, and in a quivering voice I didn't recognize, she suddenly changed gears; "Jake and I had lunch the other day and believe me, Reno is no place for Sophie to be right now. You and I both know his brain is fried, and when he's loaded and gets a bug up his ass, nobody's safe. Remember, you can kill all the leaves and still not kill the tree. Sometimes you gotta rip it up by the roots and set the fucker on fire. What I'm telling you is, Jake won't go down easy. He got his nickname Snake for a reason, and the only way you're going to kill him is to cut the little bastard's head off. So for once, please listen to me. Gas up that rolling piece of recycled Jap junk you call a truck, grab Sophie, and head for Canada. And if you tell anybody I said this, I swear to God, I'll have you murdered in your sleep, but I still love you. I always have, for all the good it did me. Now get moving and don't look back. I'll meet you and Sophie in Medicine Hat at the Husky Truck Stop in two days. Don't think twice about it, just go...now!"

I don't remember much else about that conversation, but at least she'd confirmed the one thing I already knew; thanks to smack, Jake had become a raging psychopath with a diseased brain who'd gone over to the dark side and was never coming back. But if it was true Angie still loved me, who gives a shit? On the other hand, had I known then how much he really hated Angie and me for doing what we'd done to him, and making him lose face and all, Angie might still be alive today.

I don't know when Jake's circuitry went haywire, but he hadn't always been a total sociopath. At first, his life of crime was small time: slapping lightweight hoods around for no particular reason, strong-arming a few gutter punks for lunch money, breaking a couple arms for his racket boy pals downtown. But after dropping out of high school, he moved up fast: taking down liquor stores, scamming loan sharks, shaking down pawn shops...and of course there was that time he roped me into driving the getaway car on a computer equipment heist back our senior year in high school. Nevada's a third strike state and he could have gotten life for that, but lucky for him, his old man was a union boss who wielded some serious political power in Reno, and all he had to do was a three year up stretch up in Carson City. I'm still not sure why they let me off, but I'm guessing it's because I'd had no priors, made the honor role three years in a row, and was a passable quarterback (pardon the pun). All I got was a six month probation, community service, and a revoked license for smashing the getaway car into a police cruiser on our way out of town. Jake and I both did the crime but it was Jake who did the time, and if I know Jake, he's got no intention of ever forgiving me for it.

I can feel him out there right now, prowling the back roads and interstates, looking for us; I'd stay up nights keeping an eye out for him, but I'll never see him coming. Always the consummate chameleon, he could be anybody, the way always blends in and stays out of site. He'd be on you before you even knew he was there: like the time he caught me peeking into his mother's bedroom in Tonopah once when she'd been entertaining a -shall we say- gentleman caller. That next morning I found what was left of my pet hamster stuffed into my Cuisinart, which had been set on purée. Even after mopping up the bloody guts and gore, I still didn't realize just how warped Jake really was until he'd gotten out of the joint. I found out later from a cop pal of mine back in Reno, that he'd become a lot more interested in Mexican brown tar than he was in becoming the next Pretty Boy Floyd. Had I known back then what I know now, I would have just laid a couple C notes in his fist, told him to go find a shooting gallery, and shoot himself in the head. Would have saved a lot of people a lot of trouble. He'd always been a pot-smoking speed freak, but once he started cooking skank, according to my cop buddy, he apparently gave up thinking he could pull off a plan as elaborate as the one he'd dreamed up to get even with Angie by having me snatch her kid, and then getting even with me later by letting me know the kid was mine. Smack heads are impatient like that, and when I hadn't shown up with Sophie at Jake's Mafiosi pal's fishing lodge in Tahoe like I was supposed to, Jake had apparently decided to go ahead and off Angie and me, and then snatch Sophie for his own sick reasons. Patience never was one of his virtues, and Lord knows he hated to lose face, not that the treacherous little mole had much of a face to lose.

I'm sure, in spite of Jake's normally incoherent condition, that he's aware by now that I've figured it was him who'd killed Angie, and that it's me he'll be gunning for next. Sophie and I had seen the news about Angie's murder on CNN at a truck stop near Idaho Falls, and of course it had been in the local Montana papers, because that's where her body had been found, stuffed like a bag of garbage down an abandoned mine shaft in the Garnet Mountains near the old ghost town of Coloma. If I didn't know then how much danger Sophie and I were in before that, I did then. But it's not even close to the shit Jake will be in if I get to him first.

Off to the south, there's a rippling wave of freezing rain falling where ever it damned well pleases and I can feel the rig vibrating as sleet slashes across the windshield in dirty gray sheets. I'm punching it as fast as it'll go but I can't see shit, as if that matters. There's no way I'm outrunning this nasty-assed storm in a tricked-out Kenworth beaver trap.
But just when I least expect it, the rain slacks off a bit and I can smell a mint-soaked breath of a breeze easing through the half-opened window. But the second I think we're in the clear, a grotesque funnel cloud leaps down out of the sky and lumbers towards the truck, tacking east across Paradise Valley like an infuriated zombie searching for something dead to sink his fangs into. Sophie's stirring but thank God she doesn't wake up. Getting angrier as it grows, the twister howls off across the highway, picking things up and putting them back where they don't belong. Freezing in its tracks for one brief second, it pauses, as if sniffing the air for fresh meat. It's still about a quarter mile off, but tasting blood, it rears back on its tail, wags its dust blackened tongue around in it's ghoulish mouth, and heads straight for us. The stubborn rig roars and coughs, missing a beat, and then hemorrhages, like it knows the battle's lost but still won't give up.

When I look over at Sophie, she's still thrashing around in the throes of a nightmare. I don't know how she does it, but she manages to twist around in her pseudo sleep and flip the radio dial to Montana's KALS Christian channel. Turning it up real loud, she raises her palms to the roof and shouts over the roar of the wind; "You better get right with God, Pops. Praise Jesus!" She's warbling along at the top of her lungs to some song about Mary, Joseph, and all the saints, but she's so far off key I don't even realize that the song she's butchering is Rock of Ages until it's almost over.

Jesus saves, my ass, I'm thinking, but Sophie just keeps yodeling along with the choir like there's nothing going on outside but a freaking documentary on the weather channel. Who knows what other kind of crackpot born-again propaganda my Bible-thumping ex-wife Angie had drilled into that poor child's head.

There must be a state trooper convention going on in Montana today, because there are least a dozen or more sirens blaring through the din. A sign says Canada, 175 miles ahead, but with that fucking twister bearing down on us, it may as well be a thousand miles away; it can't be more than two hundred yards to the west of us and moving fast.

When a horrified white-faced Hereford falls out of the sky and ricochets off the front bumper, I back off the hammer and crawl to a slow roll, but it's too late. The look on the poor cow's face is going to keep me up nights for years. Things are getting completely out of control out there. I don't know if it's all the pot I smoked in college that's making me paranoid or what, but I'm beginning to think this damned storm has something against Sophie and me.

When the wind begins to drowned out the whine of sirens blasting up from the south, Sophie finally stops speaking in tongues and shoots me a look, her face a contorted mask. Ignoring the flying squirrels, ducks, and geese guts splattered against the grill, she shouts at me over the thunder; "You're gonna make Jake sorry for what he did to me, right Pops!"

I don't like the sound of that, but I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. After three years in the pen, working in the laundry washing shit stains off his lifer lover's underpants, who knows what kind of demented, revenge fantasies Jake's acted out with Sophie. I always thought he preferred raping sheep to playing doctor with little girls, but if Sophie's telling me what it sounds like she's telling me, then Jake's hell of a lot demented than I imagined. When I look over at her again, a tiny tear is sneaking down her pretty face and she mumbles just loud enough for me to hear; "When Angie was at work, Jake used to touch me in places he ain't got no business even thinking about. I just thought you should know."

When it hits me what she just said, I hit the jake brake by mistake and nearly jack knife the rig. "He what?"

Sophie just shrugs, murmuring as much to herself as to me; "I don't wanta talk about it."

"You don't wanta what? You can't just bring something like that up and then...."

"Just promise me you won't let him put his paws on me again, OK?"

"Good grief, Sophie, next you'll be asking me to plug your English teacher."

"That ain't such a bad idea actually, but I think we should concentrate on Jake right now, if you don't mind. That tornado don't look like it's going anywhere for awhile."

"You don't say. Is there anybody else you'd like me to whack for you while I'm at it?"

Long pause...

"Well?"

"I'm thinking it over."

But Sophie's done with me, and now that she's planted the poisonous seed, she slides back over to her side of the cab and pretends I don't exist. Wise beyond her years, she seems to be keeping an eye on herself from a distance, as if she'd known right from the start that she'd been separated at birth from the person she was meant to be and will never be again. I don't know for sure what Jake did her, but one thing's for certain; there are demons in that sweet girl's head that she hasn't even met yet, but I'm afraid she's about to.

When I look in the rear view, I swear I'm seeing things. The twister has stopped dead center in the middle of the road, as if making up its mind whose ass to kick first, mine or Sophie's. I've about had it with this goddamned tornado. Even my teeth are shaking, but all I can do about it is hit the gas and head for lower ground. When I spot a county road snaking off into the woods, I jerk the wheel to the right and fly off the interstate going seventy-five, but when I hit dirt, the wheels lose their grip, and the rig starts sliding towards the ditch. Just as I recover, the wind opens up like a machine gun and starts firing dirt, chickens, and gravel the size of billiard balls into what's left of the shattered grill. The engine's coughing up smoke and the radiator sounds like it's coughing up blood, which pisses me off so bad, I speed up again out of pure spite.

Up ahead, the blurry burnt orange lights of Butte peer out at us through a swirling mass of trash, but when the sand in the wind sinks its teeth into the rig's grill, I have no choice but to stomp on the breaks and grind to a stop. Racing around the pulsating cab, I dive over the lip of a dry river bank, dragging Sophie down beside me. I throw my body over hers, protecting her as best I can, but the once dry river bed is filling up fast with water and there's no way we can stay here long.

In spite of the fact the damn funnel's rolling like a runaway bus over the top of us, Sophie doesn't seem all that worried. She's busy sucking on her thumb like she thinks it's a candy cane, then switches over to chewing her nails to the quick. If she keeps it up, she's going to have nothing to nibble on but twelve raw bones. The deafening wind has already stripped the bark off the only ponderosa pines left still standing on the river bank, but I can still hear Sophie screaming at me; "Don't think this little drizzle gives you an excuse to leave me, Pops! You promised!"

Where she thinks I'm going, I have no idea. Nobody's going anywhere tonight. The enormous funnel that just slammed into the river bank will see to that. As farm machinery, metal silos, and shrieking livestock whirl overhead, I try to spit out the last of the air in my windpipe, but my voice seems to have melted into mush inside my throat and I can't catch my breath, the unbearable weight of the wind driving us deeper and deeper into a mud splattered stand of buckwheat grass that's clinging for life to the black bottom river bank. Hell is coming but there's nothing I can do about it now. Sophie's face is white as granite and the specks of gold dust in her eyes shine like ancient insects trapped in amber. She's in deep shit no matter what happens next, she just doesn't know it yet.

Suddenly, the shattered sky goes still as stone and the coiled tail of the twister creeps up into the black sky like a drunk sidewinder to lick its wounds. There's the scent of honeysuckle and dead snakes in the air, and I can see red-winged blackbirds coming up for air, indignantly ruffling their feathers in the cedar trees: and then the sirens start up again.

It's hard to tell if Sophie's still asleep or just in shock. I crawl up to the edge of the river bank and take a good long look at the bloody battlefield that used to be southern Montana. The torn and tormented bodies of farm animals are laying all over everywhere in obscene poses, as if some a serial killer had arranged their bodies like that to taunt the police. I wouldn't be surprised if Jake and Sammy Rats, had something to do with that. It looks bad, but not as bad as those dreams Sophie keeps having. After finally crawling out from under me, she shakes herself like an bored cat, the storm, nothing more to her now than a fleeting inconvenient memory. But when she sees me just standing there like a clueless dork gawking at her, she slaps her hand on her hip and gives me her infamous head tilt; "Best stand on it, Pops. We ain't got all day."

Wrinkling up her brow, she heads for the truck, but stops, then races back to the riverbank. Rifling through the muddy rubble she digs her purse out from under a wet patch of Russian thistle grass and hauls out a purple, waterlogged teddy bear that's bigger than she is. Seeing me still standing there with my thumb up my butt, she let's me have it;

"We're burning daylight here, Bubba. Ain't no bears in the air or County Mounties going to get caught dead in weather this bad, and if we stick to the big roads, stay in the hammer lane, skip the chicken coops, keep one eye on our back door and another eye on those city kitties and girlie bears who keep taking pictures of us, we might just make it to Canada yet. If you let me drive, we might even make it there before Christmas. You know what they say, 'if yer draggin ass, yer burnin gas.' "

I have no idea where a twelve year old learns to talk like that. She didn't learn it from me.

"Trucker Summer Camp," she says, reading my apparently transparent mind. After pausing just long enough to stifle a chuckle she says, "OK, I'm kidding. So can we please go now?"

"Yeah, we'll go," I shoot back, "but I'd really appreciate it if you'd stop jabbering on the CB half the night when you think I'm asleep. Who knows what you'll learn next from those spaced out speed freaks."

"So, what else is there for me to do while you snore, aye Pops?"

"What about fly fishing? From what I hear, that's what people do up here. You ever been fly fishing?"

"Are you kidding me? Why would anyone with half a brain wanta go fishing for flies?"

"Uh, well, we can go shopping if you'd rather. You like shopping? I saw a sign back there for a garage sale. Girls love garage sales, right?"

"A garage sale? What do I need a garage for? What's wrong with you anyway? You on something?"

"Oh, forget about it. I was only trying to come up with something we could do together once we get to Canada.

"How about we pull over and take a nap, then we can dream about each other. That work for you?"

"Funny. How about we have a normal conversation like normal people instead? I don't even know anything about you. How about you tell me what you want to be when you grow up?"

"A lesbian." She doesn't even think twice about it.

"A what?"

"Just kidding. By the way, I think I need a new name, don't you? Veronica's kinda lame."

"You may be right. What do you have in mind?"

She doesn't even hesitate: "Helen. I love the name Helen."

"Of all the names in the world...oh, what the heck. Helen it is then. But how about a last name? "

"Wheels. You like that one?"

"Helen Wheels. Good one."

"You don't see anything interesting about the name, Helen Wheels?"

"Nope. Sounds good to me."

"Well, OK then. So what about you? You can't get a much lamer name than Archie."

"How about Roland. You like that one?"

"Not bad. What about a last name?"

"Thunder. It's an Indian name. Roland Thunder. Get it? See anything interesting about that name?"

"I would appreciate it if you wouldn't mock me. I'm not a dork you know."

"Who's mocking who around here? Turn around is fair play, and now you know
what it's like hanging out with a rocket scientist."

"You're comparing yourself to a rocket scientist?"

"That would be the analogy, yes."

After restraining herself from tittering out loud, she has to admit, "Helen Wheels and Roland Thunder. That ain't bad actually."

"I hate to rain on your parade there, Shorty, but could you please do something about your grammer? My God, if I sold every double negative you uttered I could retire a rich man."

Stung, she bites back, "I don't see nothing wrong with the way I talk."

"Well, you see? Right there, that just might be the problem."

"Well it won't be if you don't pick up no English teachers."

The piss yellow sky is clearing but the dead are still dead, and I'm thinking maybe it's time to stop playing hide-and-go-seek with Jake and speed up his timetable a bit. I grab Sophie's hand and head for the rig. Miraculously, it's still there and starts, and we're gone, flying north across the carrion littered killing fields.

I'm shaking so hard I can barely drive, hating myself for putting Sophie through all this. She's a card, that girl, but it's easy to see that, even asleep, she's got her mother's sad mysterious eyes and inscrutable poker face: but her daredevil attitude is a thing of beauty all its own. You have to love women with that kind of bare-knuckled kind of fearlessness. It's hard to believe she's still just a kid. I don't know what to do for her, but if Angie was still alive, she'd have set her straight by now. There's no way she would have allowed her to get into this kind of predicament, and no way she'd ever forgive me for being the cause of it.

Ever since Sophie and I saw that CNN broadcast about the Montana State Police finding Angie's body in an old mine shaft, Sophie seems to have gone missing, lost even to herself: as lost as I've ever seen anybody get lost. I can't seem to do anything to console her, and don't know if she'd let me even if I could find a way to. Her desire for revenge seems to have morphed into a life of it's own, and judging by the ferocity of her resolve to get even with Jake, it's hard to tell what she needs more, a hug or an exorcism. And quite frankly, if I was Jake, I'd be a lot more afraid of her than I would be of me.

In a truck stop near Dewey just south of Butte, Sophie jumps out to go to the can, and while she's off dazzling the perv truckers with her trollop makeup and rhinestone encrusted, pink street walker outfit, I make a few calls to a couple well-connected pals from my computer heist days to see if they know where Jake might be. There's no way the shifty dirt bag won't find us sooner or later, so why not turn the tables on him while I've still got the chance?

After the tenth call I give up, but just as I holster my cell, it rings. When I recognize Jake the Snake's voice on the other end, I about have a coronary. "Long time no see, dick face," he drawls, his voice drifting off into a drug-induced drone. "Nice weather we're having, aye? So, you wanta get together and talk about ole times or what?"

Seems to me, if the sneaky son-of-a-bitch is clever enough to get his hands on my unlisted cell number -which I don't give out to anybody ever- then he's most likely smart enough to figure out that Sophie and I are headed for Canada, and that sooner or later, we'll be going through Butte. I just hope he doesn't remember that I know where he stays when he's there.

I hate to admit it, but back in high school, just prior to the botched computer heist debacle, Jake talked me into going to Butte with him while he cased a Savings and Loan over on Harrison Avenue that he planned on robbing the next day, and we'd spent the night in a condemned shack on North Main that he sometimes used as a safe house. I didn't go back with him to rob the place, thank God, but I still remember the house, and I'm betting all my marbles, that's where he's staying.

Jake's slurring his words but I catch his meaning; "Let's meet in two hours. I'm a little under the weather right now, if you know what I mean, so I'll have to get back to you later to let you know where to meet..." He sounds like he's in an echo chamber sucking on glue, but the menace in his voice is unmistakably clear, "...and bring the kid."

Like that's going to happen. I wouldn't put it past Jake to sell her to one of his kiddy porn pals in West Hollywood once he gets done with her.

Driving through Butte looking for a safe place to stow Sophie for the night, I spot a no-tell hooker motel in a shit hole slum called the Cabbage Patch. If there's one thing Jake hates worse than getting conned by his ex-wife or cuckolded by the misguided fool who stole her from him, it's prostitutes. He won't go anywhere near one. I imagine his mother being one has skewed his opinion on the subject, but why go there? He won't come anywhere near the Cabbage Patch and that's all that counts.

When I go to the office and check in using a fake ID, the tattooed grease ball behind the counter looks at my driver's license, and smirks; "Leonard Mertz, huh? Jesus, where'd ya get this ID anyway, a box of Cracker Jacks?" Wink wink.

I give him a Ben Franklin, but before he can stash it in the cash box he glances out the window and sees Sophie sitting on a her suitcase in front of the rear view mirror, applying pound after pound of pancake makeup and slapping on enough cherry red lipstick to stock the shelves of half a dozen porn starlets. She looks just like the kiddy hooker that Jody Foster played in Taxi Driver. She's really getting into this disguise business but enough's enough already. The clerk's grinning ear to ear, drooling all over himself, his gold caps flashing in the neon light, mesmerized as he watches her smacking her lips and fondling her sunglasses. He looks back at me, calculating my age, and winks, leering out of the side of his mouth; "Way ta go, big guy," like I've just been accepted into some dirty little secret society of child molesters.

"What the fuck did you say?" I fire back. "The kid's nine-years-old, you depraved slug. What kind of sicko reject are you anyway? I know baby rapers doing life at Rikers that wouldn't have the balls to say a thing like that."

"Jesus, Mac. I was just messing with you. I never seen a kid that young look that old. She could play that Megan Fox chick in the movies, for shit's sake. She's a looker, that one."

"Well look at somebody your own age, you twisted piece of shit, and give me the fucking room key.

When I gets back to the car, Sophie's fuming. "What did you say to that guy that he thought was so funny? I saw him leering at me."

I think I detect a hint of smug satisfaction in that, but could be wrong. I ignore her and drive around to our room.

"Here's the key," I tell her. "Go on in but don't make any phone calls and don't open the blinds. I won't be long."

Doing that little soft shoe shuffle she does when she's ticked at me, she stomps her foot and says, "I'm not staying here alone in this roach infested rat trap with that perv clerk snooping around out there."

I start to leave, but she won't let up; "And just where do you think you're going without me anyway? You listening to me, Pops?

"You don't need to know. And stop calling me Pops. How many times do I have to tell you. It's Archie."

"Whatever you say, Pops, but I know where you're going. I'm not dumb you know. I would have got straight "A's" last year, but my English teacher gave me a "C" because she don't like me."

"You don't say. You got a "C" in English. Imagine that."

"What's that supposed to mean? You don't think I'm likeable?"

"I didn't say that, I just said you're not going with me. I've got an errand to run and I don't want any distractions, OK?"

Something about the look I give her puts an end to her questions. When I head for the door, I feel like an undertaker on his way to work. Looking back, I tell her, "I'll be back in half an hour," and then stalk off through the trash littered blacktop parking lot towards the scarred shell of my fatally injured Peterbilt.

"You better come back for me, after you see Jake," Sophie yells through the open door. You promise?"

"I'll come back. I promise."

I don't even want to think about how she figured out I'm going to meet Jake. Sirens are wailing on the Walkerville side of town, and if I'm going to get to him before the cops do, or before gets to us, I'd best dance on the pedals.

Off to the north the swishing tail of a new twister shimmies down out of the sky but then harmlessly evaporates back up into the copper-colored clouds. The temperature is dropping fast but I'm already shivering inside my clothes, knowing what it is I've got to do, and hating myself for the fact it's me who got Sophie into this cluster fuck.

After parking the rig a block away, I take my ancient single-shot Colt .45 out of the glove compartment and walk slowly up to Jake's old doper shack just off East Park on North Main. After taking a quick look through the window, I kick the door in. The place looks like a deserted funeral parlor and I can smell the rotten sweet gummy stench of Mexican brown skank drifting into the room from the john. I guess my Reno pals were right; Jake really has turned into a spaced out smack head. I don't know who's going to shit his pants first, Jake or me, but I don't wait to find out and walk right up to the cross-eyed ferret and ram the barrel of my antique Colt against his head. But before I can pull the trigger, I notice that somebody's already put a hole the size of a half dollar dead center in the middle of his forehead. When I whirl around and stumble through the dark towards the door, I see what looks to be a prehistoric version of the Pillsbury Dough Boy in sunglasses waddle out of the bathroom, carrying a box of matches and a super-sized Remington .41 Magnum that makes my ancient peashooter look like a water pistol. As my eyes adjust to the sickly haze, I see Sammy Rats staring at me like I'd just shit on his new shoes. "What the fuck," he says. I doubt he thinks I would have had the guts to blow Jake away, but he obviously believes I'm about to take a shot at him. I barely have time to duck before he fires a round at me that misses my face by half an inch. I make it outside standing up, but when he wobbles through the door and unleashes another half dozen rounds at me, I hit the concrete and roll over the curb into the gutter. When he stops to re-load, I jump up and let fly with my not-so-trusty peacemaker, and damned if I don't strike pay dirt. Jaba the Hut over there is clawing at the hole in his neck, screeching like a gut shot hog, but he won't go down. "Consider yourself lucky, you stupid son-of-a-bitch," I yell at him, unloading the cannon he'd dropped and kicking the shells into the street.

Unmoved by all the caterwauling, I jump over the river of blood running into the cracks in the sidewalk, and haul ass back to my rig, leaving Sammy in the parking lot, blubbering away like a beached baby whale with a load in its pants. Who knows the size of the book they're going to throw at me for plugging the primordial sloth. Of course, once they pull his rap sheet, they should give me a medal.

Just when I think this mess is beyond my comprehension, it comes to me; whenever Jake used to get stoned, he got sloppy, and from what I've heard, after he'd robbed a dope dealer in Bozeman about a month or two ago, he made the fatal mistake of popping a cap in his back and then setting the poor son-of-a-bitch on fire. Unfortunately for Jake, the guy he whacked was a mobbed up hood from Vegas, and Jake's boss, Monkey Dick (don't ask), wasted no time putting out a contract on Jake Thugs like Sammy normally operated in packs, but cunning as Sammy was, once he found out about the contract, he hit the road for Reno, looked up Monkey Dick, and Jake's grave was dug. The last guy on earth Jake would have suspected of having the balls to double-cross him was Sammy, but then, it had never even occurred to him that Sammy and Angie were brother and sister, and it never occurred to Angie or Sammy to make it his business. And for Sammy, it was kind of a twofer deal; he got even with Jake for offing Angie, and made a boatload of spending money for offing Jake. What's not to like about a deal like that?

When I get back to the motel, I take Sophie by the arm and half drag her back to the truck. When she jerks her hand free to wipe the sleep from her eyes, she drops her purple teddy bear. I tell her to leave it, but she goes back for it anyway.

We crisscross the main highway heading north, taking mostly dirt roads, on our way to Canada. The birds have all disappeared and the steamy blue evening light has turned into a tarnished gold stain across the western sky. It's too quiet, and I'm not convinced that the storm has died. Off in the distance, the last of the sunlight is turning a pale shade of alizarin crimson, and Interstate 15 looks like a ghost road on Twilight Zone, not another truck or a car in sight. When I look over at Sophie, she's gnawing away on the last of her finger nails, sulking up her own storm. Glaring back at me, she can't seem to contain her angry self; "I can't believe you didn't take me with you to whack Jake."

Exasperated, I slam on the brakes, jump the culvert going sixty-five, plow through a row of soybeans, and groan to a stop in the mud. My fuse is lit and burning fast, but Sophie doesn't have a drop of fear in her, and before I can get a word out, she picks up right up where she left off; "You should have taken me with you, Pops. I wanted to see that creepy sicko cry like a little girl and wet himself when you pulled the trigger. You shot him in the balls, right."

"Jesus H. Christ, Sophie, you've got some mouth on you. Remind me not to piss you off. What do you think this is anyway, a Quentin Tarantino movie? When you shoot somebody in real life you better hope they get back up, because if they don't, they strap you down on Old Smoky, turn on the juice, and watch you fry."

Sophie doesn't even flinch; "Well, I wouldn't have let that greasy pile of gopher guts get back up," she snarls, in a voice so cold it freezes me to the bone. You whacked the pig, right? You promised!"

I do my best to reassure her by stating the obvious, "Jake won't be fooling around with little girls or shooting anybody else's mother, if that's what you mean."

"Maybe so," Sophie wails, "but you stole my revenge!"

As furious as she is, the air seems to have seeped out of her anger and she sighs, turning away to look out the window. The agitated clouds are still whipping themselves into a frenzy in the puke green sky, and it looks as if they may be ramping up for another round. The air's gone slack and smells of violets. The starlings have stopped cackling and the entire countryside looks like a parking lot in The Night of the Living Dead.

I shake myself and wonder what I'm doing here, taking the kid's word for things that I don't even know anything about. How do I know if she'd even told me the truth about that sick prick Jake doing the perverted things she said he did to her. Two days ago I didn't even know I had a daughter, and now this? Not that she's not growing on me, but I don't even know the kid. So what if she looks like me? So do a lot of people. Even so, if I'm ever going to be any kind of father to her, I guess this might be a good time to start.

Putting my mug right up in her face, I do my best to act like I know what I'm doing; "Listen up, Little Missy, You better not be lying to me about Jake doing unspeakable things to you."

Severely struck numb, her pride crushed, Sophie checks a tear: "Why would I lie? You don't know what he did to me. You weren't there. Who do you think you are anyway?

"You mean, besides your father?"

"Since when?"

"Since the day you were born, that's when."

"Like you were there. And even if you woulda been, that doesn't makes you the boss of me."

"Uh, yeah, it pretty much does. I may not know much about being anybody's father, but somebody has to be the adult around here."

"Oh, what do you know, you're older than television. You probably already forgot that Jake shot my mother. But at least we're even now."

"Nobody ever gets even, Sophie."

The weighty truth of that sad fact drags my chin down to my chest and it's all I can do not to slump down on the steering wheel and go to sleep. Nobody told me how hard this tough love father shit is.

When I look over at Sophie, she's got herself squished up against the shotgun seat door, watching the lemon-colored sky turn sour. I have no idea what possessed me to let a school-skipping, grammar-challenged, CB talking twelve-year-old, talk me into joining this high wire circus act: not to mention the fact that the resourceful little drama queen has collected a virtual boatload of information on me and seems to know just about every damned thing I've ever done in my life, none of which I'm particularly proud.

"Google," is all she has to say when I question her about it. "You just cannot believe the things you can learn about on Google."

I don't even know what Google is, but I know enough not to play Trivial Pursuit with the cheeky little whiz kid. There seems to be no end to the things she knows: like about the computer equipment heist I got busted for, the embarrassing particulars of my divorce, the type of toothpaste I use, and the color of my frigging socks. When I ask her where she gets all her useless information, she digs deep into the uncharted depths of her purse and hauls out a thread bare, cloth bound diary with a weathered black-and-white photograph of me and Angie stuck inside the front cover. The photo is smudged but there I am with my arm around Angie. She's wearing a blue dress, hugging the purple teddy bear I'd just won for her at the carnival. Musing bitter sweetly, Sophie says, "I've still got the teddy bear, ya know."

Doing her best Nancy Drew impression, she adds somewhat cryptically, "It's amazing all the interesting things Mom wrote down about you in her diary. She was crazy in love with you, ya know. Too bad you couldn't keep your pee pee in your pants or maybe none of this stuff with Jake would have happened. Ya think?"

My mouth is open but nothing's coming out, although I do finally manage a feeble, "Is that Angie's diary you've got there?"

"HELLO, is anyone at home? Duh."

Justifiably chastised, I take a sneak peek at the kid, amazed at how much she looks and acts like Angie: especially the way she keeps shaking her finger in my face like a miniature nun who'd just caught me chugging the last bottle of communion wine. "You better get right with Jesus, Archie," she says, "or I swear to God, you're gonna burn to a crisp in Hell for sure."

Well, isn't that just great? Another born-again, holy rolling Bible-thumper, lecturing me about my evil ways. She's Angie's kid alright. But on the other hand, the fact that Angie was a Bible-beating, pro-life mackerel snapper does explain why she didn't have an abortion when she found out she was pregnant, but it still doesn't explain why she didn't tell me about it. And even if my sly little schemer of a daughter has been playing me like a kazoo since the day we'd met, what choice do I have now? Not that I'm any Cracker Jack prize, but I'm all she's got. Her mother's dead and according to all the cable news networks that we've seen at the truck stops we've been to lately, it's Jake they're treating as their prime suspect. And if taking him and his homicidal moron sidekick Sammy Rats on was the price I had to pay to make things up to her, then so be it. I'd made Sophie two promises: one, that I would never let Jake anywhere near her, and two, that I'd find a way to make him pay for doing what he did to Angie, and thanks to Sammy Rats, I'd kept both of them. Jake got what was coming to him and for the first time in my life, I'd made a stand. And now there's no way I can just gas up my rig and drive away from the deal like I've done a thousand times before. There's no turning back. And from nowon, if Sophie and I are going to go down, we are damned well going down together.

I was hoping Sophie was finished preaching to me burning to a crisp in Hell, but once she wakes up, she doesn't miss a beat; "Did you really jump that topless slut on my mom's couch while she was at church?" she asks, playing the innocent.

My patience is bent but it doesn't break. "Good grief, Sophie, how many time do I have to tell people, I never jumped anybody's bones. Ginger was my ex-wife and she was showing me the engagement ring her fiancé had given her. She and I had stayed friends after our divorce, and she'd only come over to the house that day to share something special with me."

"I bet she did. So, did you really smash up the getaway car when you robbed that computer van? And what's the deal with you chopping off that poor driver's ears when he wouldn't' give you the keys to the van?"

"Listen, young lady. I don't know who your bogus sources are, but my job was to drive the car. That's it. I wasn't anywhere near the driver when all that shit went down."

Sophie squeals, like she'd just discovered Victoria's secret; " You just said 'shit."

"So what if I did?"

"Jesus don't like it when you say 'shit' "

"Screw Jesus. I'll talk the way I want."

"You are sooo going to Hell in a hand basket, Archie."

When Reverend Ike over there nods off, I look up at the angry clouds and wonder how long we've got before that twister takes another stab at us. I've driven this road a hundred times but I have no idea where we are. The whole sky is black as death and it's not even noon yet. If there's anything out there in front of us, I can't see it. Who knows where we'd be if Sophie hadn't dropped the bomb on me back there in Reno about me being her father, and then berating me for not watching over her when she'd needed me most, instead of stealing things from the Mob and humping hussies on her mother's couch. There's no doubt she's inherited Angie's uncanny ability to exploit my guilty conscience, but the way I see it, squaring things with Jake was the least I could have done for her. My life's going down the crapper anyway, and even if they do collar me for blowing a hole in Sammy Rats, I can't imagine any judge sending me to Deer Lodge for winging a rabid rat.

OK, so maybe I should go to the Billings authorities and fess up. But in spite of the mountain of evidence of my arguably resurrected character that Sophie's got stuffed away in her purse, I can't prove that I had nothing to do with Jake getting killed. I was there, and I'm sure by now they've found the Colt shell casings I'd forgotten to pick up outside the safe house back in Butte. And why would they believe a dead beat dad, who roams around the country hauling pigs for peanuts and picking up pasty-faced lot lizards, sleeper leapers faux Indian chicks, and borderline-crazy runaway brides? Maybe Sophie's right; maybe I am going to hell in a hand basket. But until I do, heaven only help Sammy Rats, or anybody else, that tries to hurt that little girl again.

Outside the departure gate at Great Falls International Airport, I double park my beat-to-crap bucket of bolts and hand Sophie an envelope with an airline ticket inside. She must think there's a wounded wolverine in there, because she's shaking so bad she drops it on the pavement;

"What's that?", she says, shuddering inside her clammy, wet dress.

I pick up the ticket and shove it back into her damp palm. "It's a ticket to New York City. Take it and go. And don't miss that flight. There'll be a guy waiting for you at Kennedy. He's a big Italian guy with a fluffy black moustache and a red jacket. His name's Frank but everybody calls him Frankie Bats. I met him at a truck stop outside of Beaver Falls on a Chicago to Seattle beef run a few years back. He's dumb as a brick but he loves kids; God knows he's got enough of them. And he owes me for making up an alibi that got him out of a drunk and disorderly a few years back. He'll take care of you until you get settled. He knows people. Like nuns and priests and parole officers. He'll take good care of you until I can straighten everything out with the law. Frankie's married to a hard core Bible belt Baptist named Charleen, so you two will have plenty to talk about. And don't worry, Frankie's in AA now and if he goes back to drinking himself to death, Charleen will put an end to it real quick. She takes less crap than Angie did, and she's got an even more effective left hook. You'll be in good hands. You got all that?"

Sophie's not exactly taking notes. "I ain't going no where with no mob flunkie with a name like Bats," she whimpers, as a waterfall of tears pours down her face. "And why would anybody call somebody Bats for anyway?"

"Let's just say it's not because he likes baseball and leave it at that, ok? Now go!"

I slap a sweaty roll of hundred dollar bills into her palm, but she clamps her fist shut and won't take it. She seems to be going into shock, her chest heaving, pleading silently with me not to desert her, not again, but just like her mother, she's too proud to say so out loud. She doesn't seem to notice that her tears have completely drenched the purple teddy bear I'd won for her mother all those years ago. Although her lips are quivering, she finally gets the words out: "Who's gonna watch over me like you do, Archie?"

That does it. Any minute now, she'll have me balling like a little girly man. I've never seen a person cry like that before. It reminds me of one summer when I was a kid during a barn burner of heat wave in Reno when the fire department came out and opened up the fireplugs. Water everywhere. But this is the first time I've seen an actual person open up like that. I'm still holding back a flood of my own, but if this keeps up, I'll have to hang my shirt up to dry after she goes. I've got no clue what to do next. I'm afraid Sophie's airline ticket's going to get wet and slip it inside her purse. Then I give her a squeeze. I don't want to let her go, but if she's going get on that damned plane before it takes off, she's got to get to the gate fast. She can get a new start in New York. Frankie Bats and Charleen will see to it that. When I hear sirens outside the terminal gate I throw my arms around her one more time and whisper in her ear: "It's time to get on the plane, kid. You have to let all of this go. I'll take care of everything with the cops and then I'll come back for you. And no skipping school, OK?"

"I'll promise if you promise you'll come back?"

"I promise. Now go!"

More waterworks. It's like she's standing in a swimming pool in the new blue and white patent leather shoes that I bought her in Missoula on our way to the airport. People are starting to stare. She staggers towards the departure gate, dragging her waterlogged purple bear behind her. When she turns around to see if I'm still there, the gold and green specks in her eyes shine through her tears, and swear I can actually feel her trembling. I don't know how she can see straight, she's crying so hard. Over the roar of the terminal loudspeaker she shouts; "Jesus saves, Pops, you better get right with God," and then she tosses me a little cheerleader wave as more tears spill all over her bruised and battered bear. I wave back, my heart ripped out, choking back a lifetime of blown chances, bitterness, and regret. But I also feel the first hope I've felt in years. And then she's gone.

Just north of Shelby, I think I'm hallucinating when I see a spinning black funnel drop out of the dirty brown clouds and flick its lime-green tongue at me. Closing fast, it begins spitting rain and hail on the shredded steel roof of my rig. My plan had been to take 15 up to Sweetgrass, use the old smuggler road to cross the border into Alberta at Milk River, and then get lost in the Glacier Nat'l Park for a week or two until things cooled down for me in the States. But 15 is crawling with Smokies and I take the old Ft. Benton road north instead, thinking I'll cross into Alberta at Wild Horse and lay low in Grasslands National Park for awhile. Then I'll go back to New York to get Sophie when things blow over, so to speak.

The sign says Wild Horse, Canada, one mile ahead, but when I look up, the tail of the twister shimmies out of a hole in the wall of hail and stares at me as if it's finally found what it's been looking for. Throbbing like a jackhammer, it rears back and hurls a concrete guard rail at the side of my door, impaling it deep inside the reinforced steel panel. I take a brutal hit to my ribs but manage to pull the rig to the right and duck before it another rail slashes into the radiator. The fatally gored engine gasps for breath, unable to respond as the wind sheers away the thin steel skin protecting the hood and punching its way through the windshield, slashing away at my clothes, leaving me there half dressed and bleeding to face the next attack alone. But it doesn't matter. I'd made a promise to Sophie and I intend to keep it. Twister or no twister, I'm going to make it out of here alive. Sophie needs me and I'd promised I'd go back to get her.


Six months later...

Dear Archie,

I heard about your accident with the tornado. I think you better let me drive next time. Charleen's been giving me lessons. She says Frankie's got anger issues and shouldn't be allowed anywhere near moving machinary. Somebody may want to tell her that I'm only thirteen, but hey, as long as I don't smash the car into a police cruiser who cares, ha ha. I love driving a stick, but I really need to learn how to put it into second. It takes me an hour to get to the grocery store and back, and it's only a mile away.

I think you should know that your pal Frankie Bats is a complete chucklehead, but he did put a perv shoe salesman in traction for looking up my dress when I was trying on a pair of pink pumps at Target, so I guess he's OK in my book.

By the way, I'm glad you're not dead. And thanks for saving me from Jake. Speaking of getting saved, I just joined the Wayward Angel Redemption Church of Jesus Christ our Holy Lord and Savior of the Immaculate Latter Day Saints and Sinners.

Not really. I just thought, with your warped sense of humor, you'd
think that was funny.

Oh, I almost forgot. Please come to my end-of-school party in June. Take a bus. You can't drive worth a shit.

I know, I know. Don't say shit.

Catch you on the flip flop, Bubba.

Praise Jesus!

XO

Love,
Me

PS
I miss you!

PPSS
Jake deserved what he got.

Your loving daughter,

Sophie