Land of Tornadoes
Melanie S. Wolfe
(Release date TBA)
A plume of red dust chased after a nineteen-eighty-five Suburban as it sped down what used to be Route 66 Highway. The wind blew mercilessly against the old SUV causing its driver to jerk the wheel every once in a while to stay on the road.
Bronte Wilson sat on the passenger side and thought of the cheerful line from the famous Oklahoma song as she stared out at the wasteland before her. Where the wind comes sweeping through the plains. The wind sounded so much more delightful in the fun, perky song than in reality. In real life, the wind sweeping through the plains was about as comforting as a tornado joyously hopping over one’s home.
Bronte processed the state of things as she held the Chai pendant her ex-boyfriend gave her between her fingers and ran it back and forth across her necklace. There was so much to ponder… Ian, the trial, Robinhood and Ona. Each competed for space in her head, but Ona was winning at the moment. Would Ona wake up the same woman or would she be a Frackhead like Baylee’s aunt? The thought of this happening to her precious grandmother made her weak in the stomach. Next to Baylee, Ona was her best friend, not to mention, she was one of just four females in their larger than normal family.
A greenish-black lake appeared behind the naked trees outside her window and Bronte remembered the time she went waterskiing in its once clean waters. Now, no one would want to go near the place as floating fish dotted its shorelines, and it smelled like an unattended port-a-potty.
John Wilson’s tired eyes left the road to see his daughter observing the lake they normally ignored. “Hard to believe it was beautiful at one time.”
“Yeah, it’s such a cesspool,” Bronte responded to her dad loud enough he could hear her over the engine and wind. “Do you think Arcadia will ever go back to normal?”
A feeling of disappointment mixed with guilt swarmed John before he could answer. His rubber-gloved hands gripped the steering wheel as the old motor’s hum competed with the noise from the wind. “I wouldn’t get your hopes up. Not in my lifetime anyways.”
Bronte shook her head in protest of her stupid world, making the silver turquoise earrings she inherited from Ona swing back and forth. “I don’t know that I’ll ever understand greed.”
“It’s about to get worse,” John said. “They’re building a dome around the city.”
“To protect the rich from the mess they created. They say it’s for other reasons and that we will still be able to get in, but I guarantee you, within a short time, that’ll change.”
“That’s wrong. God, I hate them more than ever.”
“Easy to do.” Her dad said as the left turn signal blinked to indicate to the one other vehicle on the road they were turning. The car flashed its headlights at them as it passed. “We’ll bring them down soon enough though—they won’t get away with this.” John gave her a hopeful smile, and she returned the gesture.
“Oh, good, god…” he stared ahead down the highway before turning. Four men walked down the road carrying machetes, hammers and one had a shotgun. John punched the gas and turned onto the dirt road as Bronte spun around in her seat and sat on her knees to get a better look. She didn’t get to see their kind often but when she did, she was fascinated. “What are they doing out this far?”
“I don’t know.” John replied, as he focused on the rearview mirror longer than he should. “I was hoping they would stay near the city.”
Bronte looked nothing like her adoptive parents, she had a shade lighter skin than her Native American father and much darker hair than her fair mother. Bronte’s bright greenish-blue eyes were passed down to her from her unwed biological Afghan mother who thought she was giving her baby girl up for a better life.
The road they entered had remnants of pavement mixed with swatches of red dirt, a constant reminder of the old world and the new, and now a common site on all Oklahoma roads.
Bronte’s cell phone pinged, and she opened the message from Ian to find a similar text to the one before it:
You have to tell them to stop. Please, Bronte, this is my family, not just some random strangers. Call it off!!
She slipped her burner phone back in her pocket. Thanks to John’s obsession with all things tech, Bronte had a cell phone and didn’t have to pay a dime to use it. The ether should be free to all, John preached. Not hijacked by a few to suck off the many.
“Do you think they’ll find you guilty?”
“It’s my burden, not yours.” John glanced her way. “Stop asking, please.” He tapped the steering wheel. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Bronte pretended she didn’t see him counting. The odd habit was a recent manifestation. His meds ran out two weeks ago and there was no way they could afford them now.
She and all the other kids hated that he wouldn’t tell them what was going on with the trial. The internet told her more about it than he did.
The Suburban turned onto a rock driveway and drove under a rusted pole with welded metal letters that dangled underneath, declaring this was the Wilson Ranch. Two-hundred yards later they crested a small hilltop that gave way to the best views of the property.
On the second hilltop, at the end of the driveway, sat a large white farmhouse with black shutters. In front, a neglected tire swing hung from a dying Oaktree and swayed on occasion from the bursts of wind. An unfinished Buckminster Fuller inspired geodesic dome sat about fifty yards behind the house, looking out of place, but it was the unassuming barn in back that was the true oddity.
The blades of the rusted windmill John’s great grandfather had installed when he built the place jerked hard to the right as a gust of dust invaded the land. The Wilson Ranch was now a non-working ranch and farm. The old house had just been remodeled and updated six years ago. That was back when life was kind to them when John was still CTO for the largest oil company in the country.
When they reached the house, Bronte had her door open before the Suburban stopped. She grabbed the bag of Ramen noodles and bread, covered her mouth with her shirt, and jumped out and ran by her mom’s dusty broken down electric car. John slowly got out, covered his nose and mouth, and while walking, looked for any sign of their missing dog.
Bronte’s flip-flops flew to a pile of shoes on the side porch near a stripped, two-foot-tall robot as the screen door screeched open and slammed shut. She ran down a hall that had only one theme on the walls, Mensa. Numerous plaques read Mensa International Member. A reminder that several in this house scored in the top 98th percentile on the IQ test.
The door to Ona’s room was open and Bronte peaked in, hoping to see her in her rocking chair, reading the latest issue of Scientific American but instead she found an empty rocker and a perfectly made bed.
Kerosene lamps lit the open living room and kitchen. The solar panels were useless during dust storms so they had to resort to the days of old for light. Ona laid on the pale blue sofa under a quilt that was as old as her, shivering and moaning. Above the sofa hung a quote written in black font on a piece of pale green barn wood: “What is now proved was once only imagined.” – William Blake.
Bronte dropped the bags on the big white kitchen island and went straight to Ona’s side. Her older brothers, Fresco and Nikola sat in the surrounding chairs and scrolled their laptops for the news of the day as John had requested, their devices had charging cords that ran across the room to the special made stove the boys had built to get enough energy from the fire to keep all the devices powered.
Malcolm and Koi, the two newest kids to the Wilson clan, sat at the table reading, one, The Republic and the other, Brave New World. Assigned by Rakel Wilson, Ph.D. She had to get them caught up with the others.
“Koi,” Rakel said. “Don’t forget to call Sky.”
“I’d rather not.” Even though Koi’s Native American sister was eight years older, she looked identical to him with long silky black hair that reached the middle of her back, and gorgeous light reddish-brown skin.
“Koi, stop avoiding your sister or she’s going to think we have something to do with this thing between the two of you.”
“All she wants to do is stick me in the middle of Chicago. I can’t go out or anything when she’s at work. No thanks, Aunt Rakel. I belong here.”
“Koi, then tell her how you feel. Avoiding her fixes nothing,” Rakel said and left it at that.
“Still no sign of Steiner.” John asked while reaching down to pet their two other Great Pyrenes. “Hey, Milton! Noam!” The two large white dogs weren’t as old as Steiner and their bodies wagged like puppies from all the attention, knocking into everyone and everything around them.
“Maybe a pack of Coyotes got ‘em?” Koi suggested, realizing how hungry he was by the smell of the synthetic noodles.
“Doubt it. We haven’t seen a Coyote in two years.” Nik reminded him.
Koi shot back. “That doesn’t mean they aren’t out there.”
“Hux,” John called out, “What’s our Litecoin wallet at?”
Huxley, not done with his assignment and ignoring the conversations around him, hovered over the island, engrossed in a video on the oldest temples around the world when he was supposed to be reading about the new trade agreement with China.
“Last I checked,” Huxley said, “which was thirty minutes ago, two thousand.” He pulled out his earbuds and paused the video. “Bitcoin was down around three thousand and our altcoin wallets were up at around fifty-five-hundred altogether.”
“Okay,” he thought for a second. “Cash out five-hundred from Bitcoin, I need to pay the lawyer.” He shared a glance with Rakel. They both knew they would run out of money before the trial was over. “Don’t forget to scan the new ICO’s and see if there’s anything worth throwing some money at. We could really use some gains.”
“Will do,” Huxley slid over to the laptop. “Hey, did you know there are monks that are so physically and mentally strong they can be hung but never break their necks. Isn’t that cool?” Huxley got excited, “…and get this, they can get stabbed in the stomach.” His innocent eyes grew large. “But the blade never penetrates. That’s how strong their muscles are. They’re called Shaolin Monks.”
“Cool,” John said abruptly, “But let’s stay focused. You’re dealing with our life’s savings here.” John patted him on the back. “Once we get Robinhood done, college out of the way, your role as Secretary of the Treasury, then you can read all you want about the monk life. But first thing’s first.” Huxley gave a faint smile that quickly faded as he pictured a stuffy future in D.C.
John was always concerned with the crypto risk; their small stash could drop in value at a moment’s notice. It had already done that three times now. They could have nothing tomorrow morning or be millionaires. Cryptos were uncertain but at least the government couldn’t freeze his wallets like they did his bank accounts.
After the bitcoin bubble, which John was positive the big banks caused to get rid of the competition and keep themselves alive, he was more determined than ever to stick with cryptos and dump the fiat shit.
John went to Rakel in the kitchen and without telling each other their problems they said it in a hug. Twenty-four years together, and they could read each other like a billboard flashing in Times Square. John looked into her soul, seeing the same strong woman he once met at a bar in Boston wearing a tight Alanis Morissette half T-shirt and John Lennon sunglasses on her head.
Rakel was from Iceland and had creamy skin, dark yellow hair and the biggest blue eyes John had ever seen. “Any sign she’ll be okay?” John asked, looking over at Ona, hoping Rakel would surprise him.
“Her nails have turned black, John,” she said with a subtle Icelandic accent. “I’m sorry.” The ground grumbled and everything in the house shook as if a subway had been built under them but no one paid much attention.
John let her go and leaned on the counter. “Damn it,” he whispered. He tapped the counter with his gloved thumbs. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. “I don’t know how she got a hold of bad water. We’re strict with our supply.”
Everyone adored Ona, she helped raise and homeschool the kids and give them a ‘real’ education. Ona, or Onawa which means ‘wide awake’ was always there to help, making sure her grandkids never saw the inside of a daycare. She taught the kids Native traditions and her knowledge of the natural and scientific world. Being full Apache, a hippy and a retired Associate Professor of Ecosystem Biology, she was very much in touch with the world around her but seeing what had become of her beloved state these last five years was more than she could take, and she felt herself dying along with the land way before she drank the poisoned water.
In a way, she knew her time was coming to an end, the grandkids no longer needed her, the youngest, Koi, was now fourteen, and Ona was witnessing her son and grandchildren plan something so questionable and dangerous, she feared the end results.
Rakel turned back to the long marble-top island and stirred the Ramen noodles. “John, could you please do something about these robotic arms?” She looked up at the white metal arms that came out of the ceiling. “They were great when I could use them but now they keep falling down, they're a nuisance.”
Rakel’s eyes left the arms and noticed Bronte in the background. Bronte was on her knees, next to the sofa, caressing Ona’s long salt and peppered hair, and whispering in her ear.
“Bronte Rose,” Rakel said from the kerosene lit kitchen, “Don’t get so close, hon.”
“Mom, I’ll be fine. They say it’s not contagious.” Ona began acting strange two weeks ago and just the other night she came down with a fever that left her in a deep, constant sleep. John and Rakel took her to the one ER still open in Edmond, but they were turned away because there was no known cure nor did they have insurance.
“We don’t know that it’s not contagious just yet, hon, they’re still researching all this. Please. Stop.”
Nikola, wearing a black ‘Kill the Ayn Rand Cult’ T-shirt, chuckled, “Imagine Bronte a Frackhead. She’d probably become the leader of the Frackers, convert them to crony capitalism, and suck us all dry one way or another.”
“Nik!” Both, Rakel and John said with a disgruntled tone. “Stop.”
“Hey Nik!” Bronte clasped her long dark hair in her hand and tied it into a ponytail while casually smirking at her brother. “If I turn, I promise you, the Libertarian in me will exercise my free will, and you’ll be the first Democratic Socialist I eat.” She smiled big, and he returned the compliment with a wink.
“Just because you’re a girl doesn’t mean I won’t take your ass out.”
“Nikola Wilson!” John gave him the look. “Don’t speak like that to your sister. I mean it.”
“Nik,” Bronte cocked her head. “Just because you’re a boy doesn’t mean you’ll wake up one tomorrow.”
“Oooh that hurt!” Koi said.
“Dad, don’t take up for me, I’m not scared of him.” Bronte defended with an unwavering smirk. “I’ll hack him and make it look like he’s publically trolling Caleb and crushing on him.”
“Don’t you dare,” Nik’s voice drew a slight angry tone at the offensive thought. “I hate him.”
Huxley laughed, happy to see Nik put in his place. Only Bronte had the stamina to keep up with Nikola. Malcolm and Koi high-fived and said, “Burn!” Anything to get back at the ox who liked to put them in headlocks.
“Eww,” Fresco said with a scrunched up face. “I’d be ashamed to crush on Caleb, he’s cute and all, but his personality is just nasty. That’s cruel, Bronte. Downright mean.”
“Bronte, we don’t use the word hack, we say data mining.” Rakel joked. “Use the correct terminology, please.”
“Thanks, Mom! Man, you all suck.” Nikola said as he realized he was outnumbered, “I’m going to dox all your asses. Just wait. You won’t know it’s coming.”
While pushing the robotic arms up and trying to figure out why they kept falling down and in the way, John said, “That’ll be enough, you guys. We have a mission. I don’t need you all horsing around and unfocused, no retaliation, Nik. You too, Bronte. You stay away from Caleb, especially while we’re working on Robinhood. We want those bastards as far from our lives as possible.” These words drew a fierce attention in Bronte and all joking was dead. She shared a serious glance with Nik and he knew something was up.
Nikola was nothing like his composed, thoughtful twin, Huxley. They were opposites in every way. Nikola looked twenty-two rather than seventeen, he had a bushy beard, tattooed arms and neck and his hair was shaved too short on each side of his head, leaving the top too long. Once Rakel Wilson was asked by Diane Carter, her husband’s former boss’ wife, how she could let Nikola be so free with his appearance. He was ten at the time and had a Mohawk. Rakel returned the question with a question, “How can you force your kids to look like everyone else?”
“Bronte, come on, listen to your mom.” John said, picking up a kitchen chair. It was starting to worry him as well with her being so close. “We don’t know how this spreads…we’d feel better if you just sit over here with your brothers.”
Bronte’s phone pinged again as she grunted in protest and sat in the chair. “You guys are overreacting. She’d never hurt me.” Another message from Ian Carter blared at her, begging, but this one said things that made her mad.
Bronte typed back: Maybe your dad shouldn’t have fired mine!
Ian didn’t like his father anyways, Bronte thought, why did he care?
Ian replied: Maybe your dad should have supported the company mission instead of going all enviro! Look, if we aren’t going to discuss this, I’m done. I have to protect my family. I’m talking to them this weekend.
Bronte typed fast: No! Please, I’m begging U don’t! U know my family would kill me if they knew I told you. Look, I can’t deal with this right now. Ona is sick. We think she drank bad water.
Ian: What??? No!! I am so sorry, Bron. I had no idea. I know how close you were to her. A few seconds later Ian wrote: Even though we aren’t together anymore, I’m here for you. Please, can we just meet and talk about this in person?
Bronte had to think on it. Her family would go ballistic if they knew she was talking to him, let alone talking to a Carter. The rich scum of the earth, her father just recently called them. If John knew Bronte told Ian about the mission, he would be livid. He would assume Ian would warn his dad, but despite his threats, Bronte was certain of Ian’s loyalties to her, and she had her reasons for warning him.
“Boys,” John poured clean, safe water into nine shot glasses, making sure they were equally measured. “Help me get the gas out of the Suburban and into the generators.”
“You aren’t doing this now, are you?” Rakel stopped stirring the noodles. “They just worked all morning and afternoon.” Anymore John and the kids were spending fifteen hours a day out on the computers, and it was really disrupting family life.
“I can’t sit here and watch my mom turn, Rakel. She could be here, like this, for days. I have to do something productive. Time is of the essence, I have more of Daniel’s emails, we have several to read and Fresco and Huxley are having issues with the ultrasonic signals. We have to get this taken care of ASAP. I’ll take kitchen duty tomorrow, I promise.” John pecked her on the cheek, “Call me if anything changes.” He tapped Koi on the shoulder to get him out of his book.
Rakel gave him a dismissive look and turned the gas stove off. “Food is ready if anyone is hungry.” She knew the answer, they were starving and always hungry. It was the norm.
The boys ran and competed for a spot in the food line, Nik and Koi even wrestled a little and took shots at one another for the first spot. Nik held him in a head lock under his arm pit until Koi burped and the smell grossed Nikola out and he loosened his grip.
“Strákurs!” Rakel shouted. “Enough, you aren’t three!” She wasn’t normally so short with them but the stress was getting to her. The teens quickly got themselves under control, loaded up their bowls at the watchful eye of their father to make sure no one took more than their share and made their way out the back door. “You coming, Bronte?” Fresco called out, holding the door open.
“No, I’m staying with Ona.”
Rakel sat near Bronte in the living room and ate the noodles she silently swore just yesterday she could never eat again. John wouldn’t allow them to buy expensive healthy food. A month’s supply of organic fruits and vegetables was now as much as the mortgage payment on an expensive house and the cost of feeding three dogs that weighed over a hundred pounds each made it worse. But if she were honest, it was ice cream and imported salty Icelandic licorice Rakel missed the most. It reminded her of her childhood and most of all, her mom.
The sound of tires rolling over gravel alerted them but before they went to look out the windows, Bronte said, “Mom! Ona!”
The dogs began barking near the door and then suddenly, the two guard dogs were more interested in what was going on inside the house than out. Ona was staring straight at Rakel.
“Halló!” Rakel said softly as not to startle her. She sat her noodles down on a lamp table and came closer as did Bronte. “How ya feeling, Onawa?”
“I’m…um. I’m…” Her dark eyes darted to Bronte then to Rakel.
Rakel knew something was off. Bronte, on the other hand, wasn’t as aware and only felt joy and scooped Ona’s frail body up in her arms and hugged her tight. Ona’s murky eyes stared at Rakel as if she wasn’t there, then she grinned, displaying the beginnings of blackening gums.
“Bronte, stop.” Rakel put her hand on Bronte’s back. Noam put his large black nose between them and licked anything within distance of his tongue, sensing something was wrong and wanting to make things right, but Milton, was different, he wasn’t bonded to Ona, and stayed back and let out a low growl.
“Bronte. Please. Scoot back.” Rakel warned as her intuitive alarms went off. “Get back, Bronte! Milton, cut it out.”
Bronte finally listened to her mother and let go of Ona. Milton came between the two and kept a watchful eye on the stranger. Ona sat up straight, shook her head and came back to them. “Oh, goodness. How long was I out this time?” She petted Noam to calm him down.
“Several days.” Bronte said with some relief, Ona was back.
“My head hurts a little but I feel okay other than that. Boy, did I have strange dreams. Or more like nightmares; they were so vivid, too.” She stopped, recalling the disturbing images. “I remember I took Steiner out into the woods, tied him up and then,” she shivered at thought. “It’s so bad I don’t even want to say it.”
Rakel’s hand covered her mouth, and she said to herself, “He’s missing.”
The front door swung open, and Rakel looked up to find her only naturally born child standing there. His duffle bag slammed to the ground next to him. “Link!” she cried out, “What are you doing home? You should be taking your finals.” The two big white dogs ran and jumped up on him in their excitement. He greeted each one quickly, then pushed them down to face mama bear.
It was probably best to put off telling her about Stanford and jail. Maybe he’d tell her later after his older sister Rosa gave her big news. Her life changing update would surely lessen the punch of his. “Hi, I’m home! And I brought you a surprise!” He turned his attention to the sofa. Ona’s appearance caught him off guard. “Wait. Is she still Ona or has she turned?” he whispered while hugging his mom.
Rakel said in a low voice, “I’m not sure at this point.”
“I’m fine, hon.” Ona said with a giggle, her blackened pupils glistened with sweetness. “Give your grandma a hug, Lincoln. You’re home! Oh, how I missed you.” She reached out for him. “Our future Secretary of State!”
“Hi Ona. I brought you someone.” He decided to opt for a kiss on the hand instead of a hug due to her new off-putting appearance. As he did so, he examined her dark nails, which reminded him of the new border crossing, another good conversation distraction. “Hey, did you guys know they have check points at the New Mexico border now? They were checking the nails of everyone leaving Oklahoma.”
Before anyone could answer, a small figure appeared in the doorway. Rosa stood there and everyone’s eyes went from her cute face framed by a professionally cut bob to her watermelon-sized baby bump.
“Surprise!” Lincoln said with a big smile and relief. Rosa's story would keep them busy and off his back for a at least a day. “Rosa’s home! It’s been what, nine months since she was home?”