Deborah E. Kennedy Excerpt: Tornado Weather

Tornado Weather by Deborah E. Kennedy
Tornado Weather by Deborah E. Kennedy
Tornado Weather by Deborah E. Kennedy is an affecting portrait of a complex and flawed cast of characters striving to find fulfillment in their lives—and Kennedy brilliantly shows that there is nothing average about an average life (available July 11, 2017).

Five-year-old Daisy Gonzalez’s father is always waiting for her at the bus stop. But today, he isn’t, and Daisy disappears.

When Daisy goes missing, nearly everyone in town suspects or knows something different about what happened. And they also know a lot about each other. The immigrants who work in the dairy farm know their employers’ secrets. The hairdresser knows everything except what’s happening in her own backyard. And the roadkill collector knows love and heartbreak more than anyone would ever expect. They are all connected, in ways small and profound, open and secret.

By turns unsettling, dark, and wry, Kennedy’s powerful voice brings the town’s rich fabric to life. Tornado Weather is an affecting portrait of a complex and flawed cast of characters striving to find fulfillment in their lives—and Kennedy brilliantly shows that there is nothing average about an average life.

Where They Killed All the Indians

(May)

Fikus pulled up to the corner of Hate Henry Road and Rocky Way and flipped on the ambers. The crossing bar swung out and nearly hit a feral dog scooting its way through gravel to the other side. Damned cur, he thought. Damned nuisance. Better not bite her.

“Daisy! You ready back there?”

He found her in the rearview, giving him a thumbs-up. My God she was cute. So cute it hurt Fikus’s gut a little to look at her. Those dimples. Those crooked front teeth.

“Prepare for flight!” he said, and grabbed the remote that worked the wheelchair lift.

In the Bottoms, the cottonwood seeds were flying, pushed by a hard wind from the east. Dry snow. Christmas in May. It wouldn’t be dry for long. There were thunderheads gathering into knobby purple towers over the county dump. Lightning flickered between the clouds like children’s flashlight beams. Secret signals, Fikus thought. The day had turned eerie. Tornado watch. Strange green sky. Lilacs, gust-bent and fragrant, growing over the old Udall place’s garage, focused on him with the strange concentration of a periscope. When Fikus was a kid, Willa Udall slaughtered pigs there and made homemade sausage in her bathtub. Now the house was haunted, or so some said, with the ghosts of the pigs and the poor deceased Udalls. Hard to tell them apart, said the believers. The people and the pigs. The Udalls always did have squat noses.

Fikus hopped out of the bus and watched as Daisy rode the platform down to the street. The white swirled around him. A cottonwood seed landed on his tongue and he stuck it out at her. Then he swallowed the thing and patted his stomach. “Mmm-mmm good.”

“Ewwww,” Daisy said, scrunching up her nose. “You’re gonna grow a tree inside you.”

“Mayhaps a whole forest. And then I’ll spit it out, oh, I don’t know, just here—” He poked her tummy. Something hard hung there. Metallic, felt like. Bejeweled. He spied a chain around her neck. She cupped the necklace or whatever it was and laughed. He tickled her chin and she laughed again. See? She wasn’t scared of him. He was forbidden from touching the children but did it anyway because it was an idiotic rule and he wasn’t hurting anyone. Leave that to the priests and the perverts, he thought. “And then you’ll have a woods for your belly button. What about that?”

“No thank you.”

“You know your neighborhood used to be all trees? That was the Bottoms, back in the day. Prettiest, wildest place in all of Colliersville, Indiana. Trees and Indians. Indians and trees. As far as the eye could see. Now look at it. Three streets toppling into the river. Sad.”

“Indians?” Daisy asked.

The wind whipped up more cottonwood seeds, drove candy wrappers down the street. The little dog sat down under an oak ten feet away. He licked a sore spot on his leg, then raised his nose in the air and howled.

“Native Americans,” he hollered at Daisy, who had clapped her hands over her ears. “Feathers, not dots.”

The dog stopped howling and lay down in a pile of white fluff.

“What happened?” Daisy asked.

“To the trees or the Indians?” Fikus said, although it amounted to the same thing.

“The Indians,” she said.

“Oh, well…”

“Tell me. Please.”

Fikus took a deep breath. It wasn’t a pretty story and the bus was idling. But he couldn’t tell her no. That face. That voice. He should have had a child when there was still a chance.

“So, this young chief,” he started, “braids down to his ankles, decides to steal this Englishman’s daughter, right? There was a fort on the river, you know, where that barge sank a few summers back.”

“Fikus!” It was Tiara, Fikus’s eleven-year-old neighbor. She was halfway out the bus window, a scowl on her sharp face. “What’s taking so bleeping long? I’m worried about Murphy.”

“Who’s Murphy?” Fikus asked. Had a kid from someone else’s route snuck on the bus when he wasn’t watching? It wouldn’t surprise him. His bus was a madhouse.

“The fish I won today in the spelling bee duh,” Tiara said. “I want to get him home and in the tank before he dies. Or before we all die in a goddamned tornado.”

“Gimme a minute, Tiara.”

“Fine,” she said. She showed him her skinny right wrist clad in an oversize plastic watch. “One minute. I’m counting.”

“Fine,” Fikus said back.

“So…” Daisy prompted.

“So,” Fikus said. “Where was I?”

“There was an Englishman’s daughter and a fork.”

“A fort. Doesn’t matter. Anyway, the Englishman goes crazy. Just insane, thinking his beautiful daughter’s going to be deflowered by this savage longhair, and he gathers up a militia. The Englishman and his cohorts are kind of a ragtag bunch. They’ve got arrows, some rusty muskets, and only one cannon, but they’re determined. They think God’s on their side, so they hump it over to the Indian camp and they let loose. They go crazy. They turn those teepees to tatters, into toilet paper. They burn. They rape. They pillage. They hang men, women, and children from the nearest tree. They take moccasins and put them on their own smelly feet. It’s a slaughter, and when it’s all over, they chuck the bodies into the Ranasack.” He took a deep breath. “The end.”

Daisy wasn’t looking at him. She seemed to be thinking. Rain began to fall in big, cold drops and her wheelchair got a sheen to it. “What’s ‘deflowered’ mean?”

“Oh, well,” Fikus said, “it’s just a saying.”

“But what does it mean?”

“Forget it. My point is, the Bottoms is where they killed all the Indians. The ground’s soaked with their blood. Anything you grow here, grass, rhododendrons, dandelions, cucumbers, is seething with sin.”

Fikus was trying very hard to be a more spiritual person. He’d been raised a Lutheran, but his mother and father’s starched faith and the stiff services they took him to as a child did nothing to expand his world or his understanding of it. Now, in late middle age, he hoped to discover new sides to the story, to find out that everything—from human action to the prevailing wind currents to the soil and the life that sprang from it—was connected. Maybe even in a cosmic way. There were books on Buddhism, Sufism, the New Age movement, and Hinduism waiting for him back home. Not that he’d been able to get very far in them yet. His nightly routine usually left only enough time for a quick dinner, followed by whiskey, a few episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and bed, which wasn’t really bed, since he slept in his recliner, but he hoped to do better. He had goals.

“Are daisies seething with sin?” Daisy asked.

“Oh, I don’t know about that.” Fikus had gone too far. He was always going too far.

“But my home’s haunted.” Daisy’s eyes were fixed on his face now. “That’s what you meant.”

“This land is full of ghosts, just full of them.”

“Where you live, did they kill the Indians there, too?”

Fikus considered the question. Maple Leaf Mobile Home Park was up the hill and around the corner from the Bottoms. It was not, as far as he knew, the scene of an Indian slaughter, but it might as well be. The misery that went on there. It warranted its own monument. “We killed the Indians everywhere, sweetie. Especially in Indiana. Ironic, isn’t it?”

“Maybe that’s why I see ghosts,” Daisy said. “I saw my mom out on our dock just a couple weeks ago. My daddy said it was the fog but I know it was her.”

“How?” Fikus asked.

“She had her curlers in.”

Fikus started to give Daisy a push toward home but didn’t get very far before a man everyone called Basketball Juan ran up to meet them, tossing Daisy the bright orange ball he carried wherever he went. Daisy caught it like a pro and tossed it back, a perfect chest pass. Juan said something to Daisy in Spanish and then the two high-fived.

Juan had a scar that ran from one ear to the other and a way of smiling at you like you weren’t really there, eyes wide and expressionless, mouth usually full of bright pink gum. Fikus didn’t trust him. He didn’t trust that dog—hovering like a bad smell—or the day, either. And then there was the fact that Hector, Daisy’s father, was nowhere to be seen. Hector made a point of meeting the bus and escorting her home nearly every day. A teacher at the high school, Hector typically snuck away during his planning period, and, Fikus presumed, having settled Daisy comfortably in her room with a book or a doll or a TV show, headed back to school to teach the final class of the day. Locking the deadbolt behind him, most likely, the Bottoms being the Bottoms. On the rare days when Hector didn’t show, Daisy was met by her babysitter, Marissa, a pretty junior who had the same free period as Hector. “This is my ‘Make a Difference Hour,’” she sometimes announced to Fikus, shaking her dark ponytail proudly. “Honors students are encouraged to leave campus, to go out into the community and serve. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I get to take little girls home and make brownies.” Daisy would look up at the older girl in mute adoration and, for some reason, that look hurt Fikus’s gut, too.

“Were you supposed to maybe get a ride to the high school?” Fikus asked Daisy. “Hang out with the cafeteria ladies like you sometimes do?”

That was another arrangement of Hector’s. When he had to stay late to grade or conference with a displeased parent, Hector would ask Daisy’s teacher to drive her to the high school, where, according to Daisy anyway, she became Shellie Pogue and the other cafeteria ladies’ favorite helper. Fikus had been informed of all this at his annual August training session. He was given two bulging red folders, one labeled “Daisy Gonzalez” and another “Alex Nelson,” so he would know how to handle any issues that might arise from Daisy and Alex’s “situations.” That was how his boss at the bus garage had put it. Situations. The folders were at home as far as Fikus knew, probably languishing under the newest Thích Nhãt H(nh he had yet to even think about reading.

Fikus leaned in toward Daisy, cupped his mouth, and lowered his voice. “Does your dad know you’re hanging out with that guy?”

She smiled and nodded. “Juan’s my friend. He’s teaching me how to play basketball.”

“Oh. Basketball.”

Someone inside the bus started screaming. This time it wasn’t Tiara, and that meant it was most likely Asperger’s Alex. The screaming grew louder, more insistent. It was definitely Alex. “I’ve crapped my pants, bus driver!” he shouted. “Crapped my pants! Crapped my pants! Crapped my pants!”

Alex had to say things four times and he wanted you to do it, too. If you didn’t, he would start honking like the geese that lived on the man-made lake behind his house in Wyndham-on-the-River and he wouldn’t stop until you said you were sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry.

“I hear you, Alex!” Fikus said. “I hear you, I hear you, I hear you!” He looked at Daisy, at her corduroyed legs and Velcroed shoes and small brown arms downy with dark hair. Then he glanced at Juan, who was smiling vacantly while he dribbled.

Fikus had certain rules he was supposed to follow as a bus driver in good standing with Colliersville Community Schools. Number one, don’t touch the children. Whatever. Number two, do not come to work intoxicated. Hungover didn’t count, right? Right. Number three, never let a child go home in the company of someone who wasn’t her parent or guardian. He thought about telling Juan to go away, to play with someone his own age for a change, but Tiara appeared again, waving one hand in front of her nose and thrusting the other one out over the street. In that hand she had a plastic bag half-full of water. An orange fish the size of a sugar cookie fluttered at the bottom.

“Fikus!” Tiara said. “Seriously. It’s been a minute. Plus, it smells like shit on this bus and I think it’s killing Murphy.”

“Just one more second.” Fikus turned, expecting to see Daisy still sitting there, but Juan was already wheeling her away down Hate Henry Road, the mangy dog following right behind, nosing at the dirt and weaving from pothole to pothole.

A day late and a dollar short, that’s how Fikus’s own mother often described him. He was always late and told kids violent stories they couldn’t possibly process. Plus, he was balls at discipline and, as far as he could tell, a bad Buddhist/spiritual person. He sucked at being present and mindful and couldn’t for the life of him meditate. Fikus sighed heavily and pulled himself back onto the bus. Tiara was in his seat.

“Move,” he said. “Go back and sit next to Sammy.”

“Can’t. Sammy’s got Alex’s poop in her hair. She played in it.”

It turned out Sammy hadn’t played in it. Alex had wiped it on her, trying to clean off his hand. But Tiara was right about one thing. The whole bus smelled like shit.

“I am a mess, bus driver!” Alex said. “I am a mess I am a mess I am a mess!”

“I know, Alex!” Fikus said. “I know I know I know. Let’s get you home home home home.”

Tiara found a spot far away from Sammy and Alex. Fikus put the bus in gear and drove up the hill, watching in his mirror Daisy disappear down the street. As he pulled out of the Bottoms, there was a flash of lightning and a spooky, charged delay. Then thunder so loud it rattled the bus windows. The girl, the man, and the cur were cut off from his vision by a sideways sheet of rain mixed with a wave of tumbling white seeds. The seeds seemed to silence things as they fell. To bring a hush. Like snow. Like Tiara telling everyone to shut the fuck up, they were making Murphy nervous.

Alex pulled his backpack down over his head and his books and pens and papers fell in a heap on the floor.

“I am too good for this world,” Tiara said. “I am before my time.”

Fikus turned the wipers on high and dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief. The cottonwood seeds stuck to the glass in white splotches. Those seeds. This storm. He remembered his horoscope from that morning’s paper. It had dealt in some way with weather. Hadn’t it? Said something about an ill wind blowing no good.

 

Copyright © 2017 Deborah E. Kennedy.

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Deborah E. Kennedy is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Kennedy has worked as both a reporter and editor, and also holds a Master's in Fiction Writing and English Literature from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Tornado Weather is her debut novel.

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