The Wye Oak

Excerpt 3

"Don't you miss playing?" Andrea Kirkus asked Brad at an inter-scholastic football tournament.  "You were so good.  A much better quarterback than the one we have now."

The statewide Junior High competition was being held at St. Joseph.  The best teams from each city had competed throughout the season, eventually narrowing down to two: St. Louis' Forest Park and St. Joseph's Corby Grove Middle School.  Forest Park was Bradley Carter's school.  He had been its team's quarterback throughout most of the season, helping his school win a trip to the final play-off.  This was the first game since his father's edict.

"Sure, I miss it," he replied to Andrea's question.  She had arranged to meet him in the stands at the Albrecht Art Gly Athletic Field, just below the Interstate 29 overpass, where the game was being played.  Ever since Brad's fall from grace, Professor Kirkus had discouraged his daughter from being seen in his company, so she met him on the sly.  "I would kill to be on that field," he added.  "The irony is, if I were poor I'd be there: my father's objections would carry no weight with the school board."

It was an unusually warm evening for late fall - particularly since the day had been cold.  Snow had fallen; by mid-afternoon the football field was covered.  Then suddenly it began warming up, the snow melted, the field became soggy.  The stands were packed, the spectators had tracked mud on their way to their seats.  Some carried blankets or heavy coats, in case it got cold again; most came only wearing the shirts or blouses on their backs.  The sun had just set when the game began: it had been scheduled earlier than normal to allow the St. Louis team and their fans time for the three hundred mile trip home.  Dark black clouds began spilling across the horizon, choking off the last remaining light.

Brad and Andrea had taken their seats on the front row, at the fifty-yard line, just in time for the kick-off.  The first quarter moved slowly; St. Joseph made a touchdown in the final seconds of the quarter.  By contrast, the second quarter moved swiftly.  St. Louis made a touchdown the very first play, followed by three field goals for St. Joseph, then a second touchdown for St. Louis and a touchdown for St. Joseph, putting the score at fourteen to twenty-three.  Half-time, the air began growing colder; the heavy black clouds sped out of Kansas toward the Missouri River like a runaway freight train.  Some of the spectators, watching the clouds, began singing a very old song, Ghost Riders In The Sky.

A howling wind accompanied the start of the third quarter.  Several attempted passes were foiled by it, the football blown not only over the head of the receiver but out of bounds entirely - twice ending up in the bleachers.  "It's starting to look like a baseball game!" one of the announcers for the station televising the game quipped.  Then, from nowhere, a blinding rain from the southeast swept across the field into the stands.  Blankets were hastily thrown over the few spectators who had brought them but were grabbed up by the wind as if they were fallen leaves and blown out of the stands and onto the bypass hundreds of feet to the northwest.  Nobody heard the cloud roll in.

It came as if on the twentieth century poet Carl Sandburg's "Little Cat's Paws."  It was nothing more than a passing cloud, very low to the ground, like a big thick fog that silently rolled in.  Had it not been a night game on a football field, no one would have known what was inside; the cloud would have done what it came to do unseen as well as unheard.  But the floodlights caught it.  Beaming from one end to the other, thousands of watts of luminescence burned an image in the night as surely as if a shutter had exposed an emulsion of silver nitrate.

Inside the cloud was a huge black swirl rolling with thunderous ferocity as the cloud slowly swept across the football field.  The boys on the field couldn't see it; only the spectators, from their illuminated vantage point, could, as well as the viewers watching at home on their televisions.  To the boys it still looked like fog as, one by one, it began sucking them in while they played out their final play of the game.

The spectators were screaming.  The boys still left on the field did not realize what was happening to their team mates, only that they were lost in a dense fog, which drew ever nearer.  Everyone watched in horror as the floodlights lit up bodies being torn apart inside a churning black vortex.

Bradley Carter jumped from his seat and ran, as fast as he could, onto the playing field, screaming at the top of his lungs to the boys still left "Get off the field!  Get off the field!"  None of them moved.  He kept screaming at them, running toward them.  They were in the middle of a scrimmage.  No one had ever told them they would one day have to abandon the configuration their coaches had put them in.  They wouldn't move.  The cloud kept rolling over them, one by one, drawing them up into the vortex.

Tears were streaming down Bradley Carter's face; he could barely see.  The cloud was almost on him.  He couldn't hear it, or see it; but he felt it drawing nearer.  As it reached out to him he made a running tackle, pushing himself and one other boy to the sidelines, just inches away from the cloud.  He had no idea who lay beneath him; he could feel a body struggling to free itself from his iron grip, that was all.

Then the cloud passed beyond the field and over Noyes Street, to the immediate west, carrying the disembodied boys toward the Missouri.  In its wake were two boys, lying just outside the ten yard line.  Slowly they got up and looked around.

"Where'd they go?" the boy Brad had tackled asked.  "Where are they?"  He began to panic as he sensed something terrible had happened.  He began running, away from Brad, to the other end of the field, calling then crying out then screaming the names of his team mates.  "Where are you guys?  Where are you?"

Brad walked across the field to the stands.  When he reached his seat, he touched Andrea's cheek with this palm.  "It might have turned," he said.  "I didn't think.  It might have turned and gotten you and I wouldn't have been there.  I'll never leave you like that again, I swear it."

Andrea looked into his eyes.  "You saved a boy's life," she said.  "If you had stayed behind to protect me he would have died with the others."  Brad put his arm around her and led her away.

"I never saw the ugly side of sports before," he said, tearfully.  "Where they do exactly as they're told, and stay their ground, no matter what, till someone in authority comes to relieve them.  Andrea, I loved those guys.  They were my buddies.  I loved them.  We were a team.  They died because they were a team, waiting for the leader to come save them.  Only there was no leader.  And now everyone will think they've gone to heaven and they'll see them again one day.  Except me.  And they think it's easy, not believing in God - just something a two-bit rich punk does for a lark!  I'd give anything if I could see those guys again.  It hurts so much knowing I never will.  I loved them so much.  But I love you more, Andrea.  So much more."

"I always knew you would, when you were ready to," Andrea said.    

"It's a new kind of tornado," Sanderson Spears explained the strange markings on his radar to Joey.  Hidden away in his cave in the side of Monitor Pass, he could only see and experience the strange weather around him through his network of electronic sensors, as if he were a paraplegic totally dependent on machines to make his way through life.  "Maybe some day I'll see one for real," he added, almost longingly.

"New in what way?" Joey asked.

The cabin was smaller than the weather station at Donner's Pass - barely half its size.  But the cave was big enough to accommodate a building the size of a football field; and, sheltered from all but the fiercest winter storms, it allowed for a multitude of possible living arrangements.  In the summer, on all but the coolest nights, Spears and his assistant slept in the open, behind the cabin, in a fenced in compound meant to keep the occasional bear, cougar or wolf from disturbing their sleep.  When the weather grew colder, they pitched tents inside a ring of fire.  Only on the very coldest nights, when blizzards crept up the mountainside, tree by tree, boulder by boulder, catching in the crevices and onto the ledges then all at once leaping inside the cave as if sucked into a vacuum, did they sleep in the cabin, and even then primarily to make sure the equipment kept working.

"This tornado never touches down," Spears explained.  "It never takes a vertical turn - it remains horizontal.  There are both updrafts and downdrafts in the cell; somehow they're held in perfect equilibrium.  The tornado never becomes a cloud.  It rolls, at the same speed as a regular tornado, inside this deceptively innocent looking cloud.  How much damage it does depends entirely on how low the cell is to the ground.  This one touched down just east of the Missouri River, probably right in the center of St. Joe.  Right near Route 29."

"How can you know that?" Joey asked.

"Because I'm the best there is," Spears replied.  "That's not saying much though, considering how few of us there are.  A hundred years ago you would have expected to see giants in the year 2060 - meteorologists who could almost create magic.  Then about thirty years ago, or thereabouts, it came to a screeching halt."

"Why?"

The marks on the screen conveyed by Spears' radar faded over the thin jagged line representing the Missouri.  What was left of Bradley Carter's team mates and their opponents fell from the sky into the cold dark waters and washed downstream.

"They realized what I've come to realize," Spears said.  "The world is coming to an end.  Not the world for good; but the world as we know it; the world human civilization was created in; the world people have managed to survive in.  It's coming to an end.  And the weather, as always, is the harbinger of what's to come.  Don't report it, it'll go away.  What we haven't named cannot exist.  What you don't know can't hurt you.  Oh, by the way: pack a bag, we're headed for Carson City tomorrow."

A strange look came over Joey's face, one of fear and at the same time relief.  Tears welled up in his eyes.  "It's for the best," he said, "turning yourself in.  I'll stand by you, no matter what.  And if they want to try me as an accessory, that's okay too."

Sanderson Spears looked at the boy and burst out laughing.  "That's why I love you, kid!" he exclaimed.  "You're a treasure!  That wonderful naiveté of yours is a never ending source of amusement!  Turn myself in?  For what?  For serving the cause of justice?  For righting a wrong?  For doing unto others as they did unto those I love?  No, kid, sorry to disappoint that two-bit morality of yours, but I won't be turning myself in.  Not tomorrow, not ever.  The only thing you'll be an accessory to is my meeting with the leader of the T-Men."