Kwik Shop: August 2000 • Thunderhead: August 2000, A Few Hours Later • Torgus the Angel • Daath the Angel
Soundtrack: “Style” by Taylor Swift
Kwik Shop: August 2000
Just north of the factory on Magnolia Boulevard, midair over the alfalfa field, headlights appeared. The two small circles of light, burning through the darkness as if from across a great distance, swelled rapidly, their beams sweeping the treetops as a low rumble grew into the guttural growl of a lean-burn turbo engine running on pure cyclovodephane.
A second later, a brown, box-shaped truck burst into existence above the trees, tires finding purchase in empty air as the mouth of this roadway from elsewhere—The A-10, as it was known by its travelers—boomed shut behind it.
The truck angled down through the ozone-choked air as lightning strode the hills to the west, tires finally grabbing the road where North 48th became pavement. The engine gunned, the red glow of taillights fading in the direction of DownHome Kitchen, official headquarters of the Mondo Cinnamon Roll.
On the way there, the truck pulled into a Kwik Shop for a newspaper.
Has to be a meth head, thought the clerk.
The woman had come in while he was in the back of the Kwik Shop taking a whiz, he’d heard the ding when the door opened. Now, she was bending, intent over the rack of newspapers. There weren’t many left by evening, and it was mostly the World Herald or USA Today.
Her clothing swung on her emaciated frame, frayed and soiled as if it had been scavenged from a dumpster—which it probably had. Her unwashed hair (maybe blond?) was matted, stiff with dried sweat.
The clerk looked at her bony ass as she rapidly rifled through the papers. Clean her up, put some lipstick on her, she might even be hot, in a white-trash sort of way. At least, some guys would think so. The clerk had friends like that—guys who liked to talk about skinny, whacked-out skanks who’d blow you for a gram. Not him, of course.
Her search apparently unsuccessful, the woman straightened and turned. Definitely on meth, the clerk thought, fingering the Polaroid camera under the counter. He wondered if he could get a photo without her noticing. “Got a Journal-Star?” she asked, approaching the register, one hand digging in her back pocket. Her voice was cracked and hoarse, but also strangely arresting.
Her odor reached the counter before she did. “Oh—” The clerk tried not to gag. “God. I mean, ugh, there might still be a few back here…” He bent to look in the cupboard, itching to grab the Polaroid, snap one for the guys. What could someone like that possibly want with the local newspaper, anyway? He found a few remaining Journal-Stars and freed one.
Lincoln, NE. Thursday, August 10, 2000:
Mayor Johanns Considers Reforms.
The clerk straightened, flipping the paper onto the counter, camera in his other hand, and then his eyes met hers and all thoughts of meth and skanks and Polaroids were erased in one cold gust. They were the eyes of someone beyond repair, eyes the color and depth of a cyclone cloud, eyes that stared from a face that was simultaneously beautiful and a map of hell itself.
“Thanks, man. How much?”
The clerk opened his mouth, and at first nothing came out. “Uh, no, just—no charge.” He pushed the folded paper toward her with his fingertips.
“Bullshit.” The word was crisp, commanding, as she held out a ten, which he made no move to accept. Those dark blue eyes met his again, now tinged with disgust as she laid the bill on the counter and pointedly stepped away from it, taking the Journal-Star with her and leaving him plenty of space. Heat flooded his face as he popped the drawer and fumbled for her change. “Nah, man. You’re golden.” The stranger was already striding toward the doors, yanking the pages apart as she went. The clerk felt the blast of summer heat as she exited, tossing all but the want ads into the trash can by the gas pumps.
From beyond the arc of the canopy lights came the cough of a motor, and then a large, square something grumbled away into the night. The clerk stood next to the open drawer, a few limp bills in one hand, still looking, though there was nothing more to see, still chilled to the bone despite the sweltering air.
Thinking, spastically: Was that a UPS truck?
Thunderhead: August 2000, A Few Hours Earlier
“Weather Forecast Office, OAX.” It was Dave, fielding calls today, up at Valley WFO. Dave had been my first. I liked Dave.
The air inside this phone booth had a smell like month-old laundry. Adding to the fun was a low-hung August sun beating through the hot, smeary Plexiglas affording a rippled view of the Bogarts Grocery parking lot. West of town, the first storm clouds in over a month and a half had begun to bloom into the sky.
“Yeah, I’m calling in a storm report for Lincoln.”
“Ma’am, please state your name for our records.” But he knew better than that, and we both knew it.
Name’s Tori Marshall. Now run and blow my cover so I can become a circus act instead of actually helping warn the public it’s fixing to get ugly out here. Out loud, I said, “Names are still voluntary, right, Dave? Guess I’ll pass.” I slid my glasses up the bridge of my sweating nose, squinting through my pale reflection at the gathering storm front. It was going to be a good one. I’d used this same phone last time, which was risky. But I was running late and Bogarts was on the shortest route to the restaurant.
And the part of my brain that always sensed the approach of nasty weather had waited ’til I was half-way to work before going into overdrive, so now I was strapped for time. I could almost feel my best friend Marissa Kelvin—aka Doomsday—even after all these years, tapping me upside the head, just like the old days. Dial it in, Doc. Fire up the ol’ magic bone, or whatever it is you’ve got in there. I forced the thought away. It had been a decade since I’d last heard that scratchy, nasally voice, and wishing her back only made her absence more painful.
Dave sighed, abandoning any attempt to get personal info out of me. “Okay, mystery chick. Lay it on me.”
I smiled fondly. I liked to imagine Dave as this aging stoner-type. Graying dreds. Wearing an old T-shirt emblazoned with faded stars and stripes. I was probably way off, but then again, that was why I’d never given in to that urge to show up anonymously for a civilian tour of the weather station. In my experience, imagination usually beat reality all to hell. “System’s gonna break up and re-form east of town. We’ll catch maybe a couple hundredths.” As I spoke, my eyes followed the massive, serpentine silhouette deep within the towering cumulus cloud, spiraling lazily skyward. One razor-backed coil snaked around the base, trailing rags of vapor, in a loop that spanned a mile or more.
“And that was worth calling me up and getting me all effervescent. I am not a young man anymore, you know.”
“After midnight we’re gonna get slammed.”
A pause. “Do tell.”
“Straight winds hard enough to take out a few branches and power lines. That’s around half-past. Combined sewer outfalls fouling the creeks. Hail big enough to smash a couple windshields.”
“Don’t stop now. You know just how I like it,” Dave said dryly.
“Easy on the old ticker, Dave.” I hung up and stepped out into the hundred-degree miasma that was Lincoln, Nebraska in late summer—which felt fresh as daisies compared with the interior of the phone booth.
On the horizon, the rumpled dome of a thunderhead swelled like an ocean wave, a hot wind gusted across the parking lot, and yellow blades of switchgrass danced and hissed in anticipation after this weeks-long drought. Like a promise, the great winding shadow circled the forward flank of the cloud mass before disappearing into its depths. I stared a second longer, hoping to catch another glimpse of the angel.
For most people, that word conjures up winged figures robed in white. But it was my word for the giant shapes that appeared in the sky during thunderstorms in summer, and the occasional blizzard in winter. The sight would’ve been terrifying to anyone not accustomed to enormous, snakelike silhouettes gliding across the sky, veiled in cloud. But I’d seen them my entire life, run outside to watch for them whenever I felt a storm coming.
To me, they felt almost like old friends.
But I had to clock in at seven. I gathered up the skirt of my awful, pink flowered uniform, slid behind the wheel of my old blue Buick, and pulled out into the traffic on Westgate Boulevard, the Deftones rattling my rear left speaker.
On the left, Big Red Keno rolled past, with its hot sand pits full of sunburned volleyball players, while on the right, the wide awning of the Red Fox Tavern stretched across a balcony filled with beer drinkers sheltering from the sun. Farther west, a red sign in the shape of a giant arrow announced: Skeeter’s Pub! Keep drivin’ ‘til you hit the Creek! As it happened, the big red arrow also pointed the way to DownHome Kitchen a block north of the pub, where patrons of the aforementioned establishments would converge in a couple more hours to order drunk-food and leave me lousy tips.
The first Husker football game of the season was less than three weeks away, and an air of excitement permeated the city. Or maybe it was just the big stormfront rolling our way. Low pressure systems seem to have the same effect on Lincolnites as an approaching Cornhusker game: Giddiness, euphoria, occasional aggression.
I’d been calling the WFO anonymously since high school. There was Dave, of course, warning coordination meteorologist. Then there was Vicky, operations officer, another one who always tried to con me into revealing my identity. Andy, the hydrologist, who usually tried to hit on me. Others who’d come and gone over the years. Early on, I’d been dismissed as a prankster or crackpot. But as time went by, weather alerts broadcast for Lincoln and the surrounding area had gradually begun to include details no quantitative data could have provided.
At 7:05, I swung into my usual spot in the back lot of DownHome Kitchen and hurried through the back door and into the breakroom. My cubby hole was at the end of the middle row, the one with the strip of masking tape across the top that read Victoria Marshall in black Sharpie.
Taped to the back wall of my cubby was a photo of us, Marissa and me, taken by her uncle when we were little. He’d given us each our own copy, the perfect illustration of our alliance: Marissa, the badass, and me, the faithful sidekick. I always took a second or two to look at us before shoving my backpack inside, remembering the secrets that had made our friendship unlike any other: The angels; a patch of buffalo grass where the old wreck of a Rambler once rested; a wrinkled, ink-scored map of Kansas.
I was just scooping my hair into its usual ponytail when my fiancé appeared in the doorway.
Ronnie Gillespie, whose father owned the restaurant chain, was head manager at this branch. He was on tonight, like most Saturdays, because he was good at handling the crowds. “Where’ve you been? When we left our place, you were right behind me. This is the second time in a month I’ve had to get one of the other girls to cover your section!”
His parents thought I was a redneck. They didn’t know the half of it.
“Had to make a stop at Bogarts.”
“Forget your hose again?” He frowned, pretending to peer at my nylon-clad legs as he leaned in to smell my breath.
“Give it a rest,” I muttered, sliding past him to punch the clock in the hall.
Ronnie caught my hand, pulling me back towards him. “Hey, Tor. What’s going on? You’ve been weird lately. Weirder.”
He did that funny thing with his eyebrows that always cracked me up. I giggled, and so did he. “It’s nothing. It’s just, there’s a storm coming, after all this drought, and you know how I get.” I kissed the corner of his mouth and hurried off to relieve Cindy, who was manning my tables.
Ronnie and I may have shared our hopes, dreams, and the apartment up on Castle Hill, but I’d never shared with him my secret ability. Nor did he know about the angels, or my special relationship with the National Weather Service…or that I could remember the night I was born with absolute clarity.
Despite the fact that I entered this world around midnight during a thunderstorm, my arrival was heralded by a giant, orange sunrise. After being rubbed and carried and placed in a warm thing that hummed, I’d gazed past my newly widowed father at the bank of windows at his back. Behind him, every pane had suddenly filled with heatless flame. Newborns aren’t supposed to be able to distinguish objects or tolerate bright light. And people aren’t supposed to remember their zeroth birthday.
Except for me, I guess. I was born weird, and chances seem good I’ll die even weirder.
Only one person in this world knew my secrets, and it sure the hell wasn’t Ronnie.
I’d always vowed to never say “I do” without coming clean with him first, for better or worse, even if it meant becoming “the crazy ex.” Since I’d had this ring on my finger for upwards of four years without even settling on a date, it looked like my secrets were safe for the foreseeable future.
Torgus the Angel
Obviously, things haven’t gone exactly the way we envisioned. If they had, Little Speaker, You wouldn’t have to wonder what happened that night of Your long-awaited arrival, or why You’re, let’s say different, shall we? Weird is such an unkind word.
The fact that You’re only born every few thousand years hasn’t helped, either. My colleagues—Jambi, in particular—make rumblings about sending You a signal of some kind, something to let You know we are awaiting Your call. You are, after all, our only method of communication with humanity, and therefore our right hand (and left one, for that matter) in protecting Your world from the darkness of the lower realm. But because of circumstances beyond our control, You grew up lacking any knowledge of this, though it’s apparent You can at least see us, a small comfort. And the fact that You call us angels! How we delight in the name (last time You were here, You referred to us in far less flattering terms).
But, sadly—or fortunately, depending on one’s point of view—we don’t make the rules in this world—or in the other two, for that matter. Now, Damballah, who’s only a few trillion years my junior, has grown short on patience in her old age. She’d like to forego the rules and just glass the whole of eastern Nebraska. In her view of the universe, there are only two sorts: the good guys and the bad guys. And if a few of the good guys get erased in the process, well, gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet.
Jambi, on the other hand, doesn’t just want to contact You. He’d like to be You. Or at least, be a human walking the Earth instead of hanging out up here in Your stratosphere. His fondest wish seems to be to become mortal, to get high, to eat a pizza, to dance to music. All pretty difficult to achieve when one is several miles long and sheathed in one’s own atmosphere. The first time he heard Iron Maiden (remember that concert You went to in Omaha, back in ’91? You did not attend alone.), he caused a small tornado before he got himself under control. If You haven’t noticed, despite our best efforts to talk sense into our curious colleague, violent weather has frequently accompanied Maiden tour dates ever since.
Some just aren’t content with their station in life.
Daath is the one we really have to watch, however. He doesn’t just bend the law. He doesn’t believe in law at all. In fact, if it weren’t for his spotty ability to see beyond Your World into those above and below, he probably wouldn’t even have been stationed here. I mean, how can one carry out his duties responsibly when one’s idea of a good joke is to convince Noah’s brother Joah to put the manticore cage next to the honey badgers? Consequently, there are several species that boarded the Ark that never made it down from Mount Ararat to be fruitful and multiply.
One of many examples of why we are not supposed to speak to You without being first spoken to.
Daath the Angel
Well, come on. First of all, the manticores couldn’t have been allowed to propagate. There were already enough monsters in this world by then. And watching them in a fight to the death with the honey badgers was some pretty funny stuff. Some angels just have no sense of humor.
Noah (he of the Ark) did indeed have a lesser-known brother, Your first incarnation, name of Joah. You weren’t too happy with us back then, but at least You knew what the fuck was going on.
I’m inclined to agree with my colleague, Damballah—you gotta break a few eggs. But what the hell do I know? I’ve only been around for the births and deaths of countless universes, so my opinions couldn’t possibly matter.
I didn’t ask for this gig, but because I’ve occasionally glimpsed things that may or may not have happened beyond the confines of Your World (such as the very remote possibility that Your best friend, one Marissa Kelvin, is still alive), somehow that means I’m bound to it, like it or not.
Copyright © 2018 by Shoshana Sumrall Frerking
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead, or otherwise, is purely coincidental.