Volume 29, Number 3

Weathered Crossroads

Michelle Boyd Waters

Guthrie Cross felt a corner of her lips creep upward as the opening notes of her favorite Carrie Underwood song interrupted a lonely drive home. She tapped her weathered fingers on the split-leather steering wheel as Carrie crooned “Dry lightning cracks across the skies….

Sure enough, a glance in the rear view mirror confirmed the irony as lightning glinted over tops of thunderheads chasing her from the western hills and valleys of Oklahoma. The blue in the sky ahead matched the eyes she saw in her mirror, but the graying clouds behind her seemed more suited to her hair and mood. A memory flashed through her mind: She and a stocky, fullback-built Doyle in their first apartment, just a few blocks from her college campus, his arms wrapped around her tiny waist as she stood on his feet, swaying to the melody of “And I swear by the moon and the stars in the sky / I'll be there / I swear like a shadow that's by your side….

An emergency alert evaporated her daydream.

Doyle had sworn to love her till death do them part—or at least until his college dreams fell through, his mom died and the childhood-trauma-rooted nightmares started waking him up at 3 a.m. She pressed a bit harder on the gas as her little car climbed the asphalt covered hill, and the weatherman named the counties she’d just left, then added, “This has the potential of producing a long-track tornado.”

She let off the pedal to coast down the other side of the hill and pondered how she’d heard that warning so many times as a lifelong tornado alley resident. Part of her wanted to hurry home, outrun the storm, and another part wanted to slow down and watch the trees waving as the winds rolled down the plains. She wasn’t sure which part to listen to, hoped for the best and tried to make both sides happy. She’d been doing that her whole life.

She pressed the thought to the back of her mind as she passed a line of mailboxes and the red dirt road that lead to a former home, a small two-story frame house sitting atop a hill to keep it from being overshadowed by the shop on the neighboring parcel. Doyle Cross had spent much of his time in the shop avoiding the hurt little boy that still lived inside and pretending to work on cars while Guthrie tried to keep the home fires burning—or something like that. Perhaps it had been the best of times, at least until it became the worst of times when a sudden grass fire ignited a few miles south and burned down the whole neighborhood. She put that thought right out of her mind, too. It hadn’t all been so bad. She’d raised four kids in that house. Now, the two boys were serving their country in some hellhole she couldn’t pronounce. Both her girls were in college, enjoying their classes, parties and snapping selfies with their boyfriends.

She almost missed her own days of freedom, away from home for the first time, away from the storms she’d grown up with….

A drop of rain hit the middle of her windshield, startling her from her reverie. A few moments later, another hit off to the side. She cracked her window open a bit and breathed in the earthy scent of rain and ozone carried by the wind and lightning. Another flash lit up her rear view mirror and she counted to thirty. That put the storm about six miles away, she figured. She had plenty of time to amble home, especially now that Doyle had finally saved the money and installed the storm cellar. She’d been begging for one for years, but he just scoffed at her concerns. She felt a tendril of anger creep up from the pit of her stomach, but tamped it back into oblivion as she turned down the gravel, tree-enclosed driveway that lead to their house. On one side stood the weathered wooden lean-to Doyle and their sons had built at the bus stop for shelter from freezing winds on wintry school days. A few yards down, on the other side of the drive, stood a mound of red dirt supporting the concrete storm shelter sporting a silver turbine as a cap. She couldn’t see the door facing their slightly dilapidated white frame house, but its very existence comforted her.

Guthrie parked her car in the driveway and took her time pulling grocery sacks from the trunk as more tiny sprinkles splattered on her head and the surrounding rocks. Without even looking, she could see Doyle’s six-foot frame, weighed down by 20 years of drink and meals high in red meat and carbs, overflowing the overstuffed Lazy Boy crammed into the living room smackdab in front of his prized 64-inch flat-screen TV.

She hoped he wasn’t drinking again.

And if he was, she especially hoped it was not the special blend she liked to call his tornado cocktail. It was a mixture of liquors he saved for bad weather days, that he hoped would drown the violent flashbacks, but only served to brew more…. She shoved her own memories away, prayed for mercy, slammed the trunk closed and startled as a flash of lighting ruptured the darkening skies and illuminated an image in her mind of the first time she’d held her eldest in her arms. He’d been the most beautiful baby she’d ever seen. She did her best to take care of him, even when she had to sit in the closet, trying to calm him as Doyle’s storm raged on the other side of the door. She’d devoted her life to protecting her, no their, kids.

Didn’t that count for something?

She hurried inside and made quick work of putting away the fresh vegetables she’d selected, the milk and eggs, a few small chocolates she’d splurged on. She glanced sideways towards the recliner and its occupant filling up the living room and felt her stomach clench. Sure enough, his favorite glass, the one it took her two hands to carry, sat on a TV tray just within reach, a splash of brown liquid coating the bottom. She could see the top of his red college ball cap above the recliner back, but the angle was wrong. He was sitting upright; she instantly knew he wasn’t relaxed in sleep. The air in the room suddenly weighed on her chest and she forced herself to breathe. Perhaps he hadn’t noticed her presence. Maybe she could escape upstairs while he listened to the weatherman’s warnings. Perhaps he’d be too enthralled by the man’s sparkly tie to pay any mind to her. Perhaps if she was good enough…

“Guthrie!” He bellowed her name, and it flashed across the living room and thundered into her ears. She froze and waited for the tirade, prayed he’d give up and return to his weather updates. At times like these, it almost seemed she couldn’t make out the words, or hold them in her memory long enough to figure out what he wanted. A flash from the lightning outside blazed through the kitchen and living room windows and she counted to 10. His voice boomed into her ears again, and she figured the storm was about a mile away. Still plenty of time to run for shelter…. Another TV signal distracted him, and she listened as the weatherman updated his viewers.

“We’ve got a low-level lock with a tornado warning,” the weatherman said. She watched as hook echos swirled on the screen on either side of Doyle’s red cap. “Please do not take this lightly. Conditions today are favorable for large, long-track, potentially violent tornadoes, and they may be difficult to see due to heavy rain.”

Maybe if she quietly put the grocery sacks away and tiptoed upstairs, he’d forget about her. She sent a silent prayer heavenward, hopeful that whoever up there was listening. The sound of the recliner footrest slamming closed dashed that hope. She felt more than heard him lurch across the room to the darkened kitchen. His mouth twisted into a gruesome snarl as he hurled invective at her, words she would never dream of using herself, reflections of herself that she did not recognize. In a flash of insight, she realized that living with him was like being surrounded by carnival mirrors. She knew he reflected a distorted image of herself, but he was convinced he saw her as she truly existed—but only in his head. She backed away from him just as his hand shot out and grabbed her wrist. She looked into his black eyes as several lightning bursts froze his face in poses of contorted rage. She pulled back, but he held her fast, shouting words she could not hear over the thunder rolling down the valley and through the house. She pulled, twisted, sat down, used her feet to shove him, but he held her, his eyes bulging, and his breath rushing like a bull’s after an eight-second run. All she could hear between the thunder and his ranting was the weatherman, admonishing his audience that “You can’t survive these types of supercells with tornadoes if you’re above ground.”

She twisted away from him and finally freed her hand as her mind blanked with what a tiny part of her suspected was her own white-hot fury. With no idea where she was going, she ran for the back door, watching through the window as tree limbs whipped the side of the house, and rain beat on the glass. He caught up with her just as her hand touched the handle and knocked her to the ground. “Who are you to leave me?” he shrieked above the screaming wind, and she stared up at him, a powerful sensation rising up through her, a war cry she’d never experienced before. The screen door on the other end of the house slammed shut, squeaked open and slammed shut again, punctuating the sentence she’d never dared think.

The weatherman, his concerned voice imploring his viewers, intoned: “If this storm is heading your way, go to your safe spot…. Really, we prefer you go to an underground shelter or a basement or a storm cellar or a safe room… or just get out of the way.”

All she could see was the dry, safe interior with two little folding chairs and a shelf for holding her homemade canned pickles and jellies. She knew he would never let her get there. She knew this as surely as she remembered every time he’d bruised her dignity or blackened her confidence. Green-tinted light barely illuminated the bushes on the other side of the glass as hail ricocheted across the porch, and she twisted, rolled and finally freed herself from his grasp. She shoved open the sliding door and ran for the shelter, certain that she could feel his breath on the back of her neck. Rain poured down on her head, pellets of hail pummeled her face, and rivers of water flowed between blades of grass on the lawn revealing layers of mud underneath.

Guthrie slipped and landed face down in the swirling muck. Doyle’s arms grasped like thorny limbs at her waist and legs. She curled up, twisted and kicked him hard in the throat. Scrambled back to her feet. Sprinted for the shelter, pushed by the raging winds. Threw open the door. Clambered inside. Slammed the door shut. Threw the lock in place. Crawled into the corner and wrapped her thin, shaking arms around her soaking wet body, rocking herself as the jet-like winds howled overhead.

After a time, she realized the dim flashes of lightning had stopped brightening the darkness through the turbines. The winds had quieted to a whisper, the same whisper she’d used to soothe her babies when she’d weathered his storm with them. Her body shivered, and she waited for the yelling, the storm after the calm. She didn’t know how long she sat on the cold concrete floor, staring at the half-dozen jars of pickles left from last summer. She wanted to think about the fun she and the girls had had on their last summer before moving away for college, but she couldn’t move her arms, couldn’t move her legs, couldn’t move her thoughts, except one stray lyric: “Shatter every window till it's all blown away, every brick, every board, every slamming door blown away.

A glimmer in her mind like hope prompted her to rise up, inch her way across the floor to the door and slowly lift the heavy metal. She peered up into the blue sky and watched as distant lightning flashed across the sky behind the storm barreling its way east. She counted the distance between the lightning and thunder; figured the storm about six miles away. Plenty of time to find a safe place. She heard the voice of one of her neighbors, a young man who’d gone to school with her kids and turned her eyes to the pile of rubble that had once been a house on top of the foundation where a piece of metal sported a ragged red baseball cap—the only surviving pieces of her home. Her mind numbed, but the voice continued approaching. She couldn’t quite make out the words the dark-haired young man said, but soon he and a friend picked her up and carried her to the back of their pickup truck. She kept her eyes trained on the skies, the sunny blue above her house, the red cap and the gray thunderheads rapidly disappearing above the trees.

Guthrie had no idea how much time had passed when an aging woman she was sure lived down the dirt road a half mile suddenly appeared at her side.

“Honey, are you OK?” she asked.

Another lyric floated through Guthrie’s mind and she smiled at the lady.

Nothing left of yesterday, every tear-soaked whiskey memory blown away, blown away.

“Yes, ma’am,” Guthrie answered. “I’m fine.”