Painting by Katie Rose Pipkin
BULLETS IN THE WIND
by Katherine Myers
The shape of the Oklahoma panhandle made it unusually susceptible to roving weather. The tail ends of the ovoid county were nearly five hundred miles apart, and it was very hard for either a Southern Kansan or Northern Texan storm to miss entirely. The rain knew exactly what it was doing when it crossed over this line. It took deep breaths in adjacent states and exhaled all over the panhandle.
Here, there are a few seconds before it gets too dark to tell the difference in the sky between water and glass. A few seconds before your face will find out.
Issue #26 soundtrack: Soft Black "Heaven Is A Place You Go"
The narrow rectangle of atmosphere that sat on top of this place contained layer after layer of ferocious. From the air at face level right up to the fine line between ourselves and outer space, the vertical air shaft of Freedom county did not merely accept the weather as it came but wrangled with it, and through this tampering taught it violence. Benign breezes became possessed by whatever it was that hovered here. Tonight, for example, the sky was not itself.
Build-up would be nice, a crescendo of action, clouds graying, rain thickening, or anything like that. But that was rare and inevitably anti-climactic. In reality, supercells formed so fast they jumped out from behind the curtain of sun and breeze. You never even knew they were there, you never knew to be terrified all along. The surprise was the terror in the grotesque rush remapping of what you very mistakenly thought was a beautiful day.
That night, God took one storm in each hand and snapped the Oklahoma panhandle in half.
There were two low-pressure systems cupping the sides of the long County like parentheses. The middle sky looked harmlessly oblivious to its inclusion. From left to right to black to grey to white to grey to black. Suddenly two hands in the sand pulled at either side like digging at the beach and slipping down in the deep center, water. It began to rain.
On the side of the road there are multipurpose indentations. They are first and foremost meant to collect the rain that slides off the highway to avoid flooding. And yet they also exist for people to lie down in. The idea is to maximize surface area. A car is very heavy but only has four tiny points of contact with the ground. A person on the other hand is very light, but if they lie on the ground and spread all four limbs they become less extricable from the earth. It can rain a foot in less than an hour. Humans float down the side of the road with their bodies exposed to the storm sharp sky like a pendulum.
The tornado is a weapon. The tornado is a distraction. The tornado is a mailbox killing a horse.
Everyone had to split up. The meteorologist and the Sheriff and the bad guys and the good guys and the wives and the daughters all went down into separate basements when the siren went off. Everyone but Gus.
Wind is nothing if not persuasive and the air is so empty, so vulnerable, ready and waiting to be given a job like this. A messenger job, traceless. Wind will take care of all the legwork. Here, take this telephone pole, that’s it. I will show you the difference between hitting your head on a telephone pole and a telephone pole hitting you in the head. It’s not so fine a line. Storms use the earth to accelerate its own self-destruction. The earth cannibalizes itself at the wind’s behest.
The tornado is a dream. The tornado is a heart. The tornado is a pitchfork falling through a bedroom skylight at midnight.
Gus flattened his neck forward and hovered his head just above the steering wheel. He looked at the black whirlpool in the sky, twisting itself wicked and rotten. And yet incorrect was the thought that this wasn’t what the sky was made for. He kept the windows down until the last possible moment, until the wedding ring was nearly sucked off his finger into the air. Mud frisbees sailed into the car. They nicked the bridge of his nose, camouflaging his cheekbones with war paint for the fight.
The tornado is a mistake. The tornado is a cloak. The tornado is blood inside a chimney.
This was part of Gus’ job, part of his job as a chaser was to do just this, stay to the northeast of a tornado so he could watch it through his passenger window. And thus he approached it, head down to everything that was at hand. This time he meant to catch it.
He drove faster and got ahead of it, on the safe side, if you can say that. A thin stream of cars drove past him in the sane direction.
In a flash, a yellow antlered bolt of lightning streaked to the ground and pulled the funnel behind it. The sky, face down to the earth, stuck out its black tongue to lick the land clean.
His heart slammed back into his chest, pulling him into his seat. To his left, a red rancher, to his right an unmerciful F3. His radio crackled with a sighting. Of which storm? And to whom precisely did it matter? He didn’t know how he made the choice himself.
He couldn’t see anything for the rain, the windshield wipers embarrassed themselves, and he didn’t know if he was driving on a road.
Then, the least inconspicuous sidekick of all time roared across a yellow field toward the only house for miles. In a minute he was there.
The house shared its lawn with a big blue pool and plastic rock waterfall. The backyards have no end here, they are seamless to the plains. Put up a fence and see how long that lasts. It’s easier for dogs to jump over than you think if they can fly. It’s a neighborhood of six or seven that trick or treat over thirty miles for a handful of milk duds that at the right speeds could themselves dole out concussions.
There are things decided inside you before you realize the pieces exist for combination. Gus turned into the home’s gravel driveway and rear-ended the family sedan.
He couldn’t open the door to his car and screamed into the freight train soundtrack. The wind pushed both vehicles hard back down the driveway. He looked wildly around. Tulips and daffodils rocketed up through the black air. A stray pebble pelted his windshield and cracked it down the middle. The family’s driveway composition was homicidal.
Then, at that moment, a pant leg whisked past the front door. Eyelashes touched eyebrows.
Gus threw the left side of his body against the car door as hard as he could. The gun jammed into his hip. The door opened about a foot and he slid out. As soon as he left the car he was whip lashed. But he stood firm on the gravel and took not flying into the air as a positive omen. His breathing was out of control and he was glad he was alone. Which, he was not.
“HEY!” he screamed and scorched around the corner of the house and slid onto his left side in the mud. He got up and held hands over his face to screen the debris. Things small enough to get through did and the whites of his eyes brightened against his quickly soiling skin. He entered the back yard and was twenty feet in front of the pool now, on the other side of which rapidly approached the funnel. No sign of pant legs.
Just like the first, the second “HEY!” was completely inaudible. Gus only knew he’d even said it aloud because he felt his lungs were bleeding. The earth was breaking in half and every scream from the buried dead rose through the cracks at once. A billion swarming bees, a billion screaming babies, a billion swallowing breaths.
The tornado was thin, only about seventeen feet wide. Churning grey and black and brown and somehow whole splotches of white as if clouds in their entirety were caught in the vertical dry spin like exploding pillows. Ripping the grass out in giant clumps, it threw monstrous handfuls of mud and pool supplies into the air, tickling the nose of God, and maybe it all read like a violent sneeze. It smelled like a swamp scrubbed within an inch of its life.
The earth here is so big it makes weather a spectator sport that the sun can watch from a hundred miles somewhere else. And it did, the green lawn shined electric lime in the cloud-kaleidoscoped light beside the chlorine lake. The brown latch of the diagonal storm door rattled wildly. He hoped to God people were down there listening.
Gus ran toward the pool and swung his head side to side, eyes wide. Across the pool, he looked at the brown rectangular cleaning supply and storage house that stood exactly like a portable toilet. He began toward when it started to wobble. Suddenly, it fell over and rolled away like tumbleweed.
And there he was.
Someone of interest. A tall man in rolled up khakis and white t-shirt. Good God, it’s him. He bent his knees at the sight of Gus and aimed his pearl-handled pistol.
The men stood face to face, but for thirty feet and a pool between them. Gus steadied his own gun. He ripped the walkie-talkie off his belt and at once it blew away. He didn’t look after it. A thousand flying lions roaring and the ground shaking so violently beneath it could break your ankle. Soaked through the skin with every kind of water and shivering in the hot wind. Millions and millions and millions of empty feet and here, now, something touches down. It was the grateful history of life.
Why his pants are rolled up is hard to say but not impossible. Due to circumstance, the face becomes highly memorable. Height, weight, hair color, lack of shoes, contact lenses, open mouth, scars on his forearms and shins from several urban bicycle accidents but never a broken bone or cavity.
Fast the funnel thinned and moved directly across the pool and in a visible instant inhaled all of the water.
No one knows a damn thing about you any more.
Gus knows this debate to be the crux of his existence. Two men stand on the edge of the funnel and the question is this: if you shoot someone inside a tornado, does the bullet hit them or does the wind blow it away?
This is the somewhere someday that called your bluff. This is the now where you wish you’d remembered to empty your bank account in denominations of one and wheelbarrow it here in your place.
Compared to humans, tornadoes are only the second most destructive force on the planet.
This is the house a second lives in. The burgeoning brown chaos occupied every inch of airspace between them. Impossible to see each other. Flashes of legs and arms through the swirling strands of charcoal debris. Ten ways to die in as many square feet. Ears of corn swarmed above the empty cement hole. And what if inside the house they are already dead?
Katherine Myers is a writer living in New York City. She originally hails from Annapolis, Maryland and has spent time on an archaeological dig in Greece and storm chasing in the Midwest. Her debut novel is currently on submission to publishers.
Katie Rose Pipkin lives and paints in Austin, Texas. She has been showing art professionally since age 15, and has studied and worked in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Paris. She is currently working on her BFA in studio art at the University of Texas. View more of her work at katierosepipkin.com.
Soft Black is a Brooklyn-based band led by Vincent Cacchione. Many songs on their 2009 release The Earth Is Black were influenced by dreams. Old Flame Records recently released their most recent EP "We Scatter Light," and the band's new full-length "The Witching Hour" is due to drop later this year. For more info, visit the band online at softblack.net.