ORIGINAL FICTION: "Climbers" (Chapter Fifteen)

Chip Haynes

CHAPTER FIFTEEN- Comes the dawn.

Three o'clock in the morning is disorienting enough. There's no reason to compound the issue with what you're reading at that hour. Unless you're Ray Meadows and you've just come through World War Two with some English kid that sees things in trees (and a hunter ready to shoot those things out of the trees). The only good thing to be said at this point was that the milk and cookies had at least negated the effects of the pizza and garlic bread. Of course, as a result of all this reading, Ray was left with the overwhelming impression that it was cold and raining outside. It was neither. Nor was it 1944.
Ray got up and walked over to the window. He was surprised to see stars and not rain. He put his hand to the glass, expecting it to be cold. It was warm. Slowly, his world came in to focus and Arthur Crutchfield's world faded back in to history. He had expected the long night, but not the involvement. Ray wanted to talk to Arthur Crutchfield. To meet him. He did some math: Seventeen in 1944. He would be over seventy now. How was he? Where was he? Was he at all? Gilbert Lawrence had said that Crutchfield was alive, but not what sort of condition he was in. Somewhere outside of London? Something like that. He didn't like to answer letters and he didn't care to talk on the telephone. How would he respond to some one just showing up on his doorstep? Ray thought he may have to be a little more subtle than that, but it was a thought at three in the morning.
What next? Ray had two basic choices: Keep reading or call it a night. Or morning, actually. At least it was still dark outside. So he felt he hadn't really been reading all night. Just most of it. Maybe it was time to turn in. Sleep late and save the rest of the weekend. He could do that. The pizza and garlic bread were a fast fading memory, and whatever caffeine he had wore off long ago. Yes, he could sleep now. No doubt about it. Ray saved the last file to a disk, shut down the system and made his way downstairs. No need to wake Barbara. He'd just crash on the couch. It was comfortable when he was this tired. And he was this tired. The lights were off and Ray scrunched his way into a comfy curl on the couch. All was dark, all was quiet. Ray was long gone in no time. Nothing moved in the Meadows' house. Outside the Meadows' house was a different matter entirely.
In the back yard, on the ground, two climbers were foraging for food. This was their time- between two and about five in the morning. Certainly not much else out there to disturb them, usually. Traffic was almost non-existent and most of the neighborhood pets (and pests) were inside. The occasional kid-up-to-no-good would go by, but always in too big a hurry to see that they were there. Cats left out all night were the climbers' biggest problems. Noisy things, easily disturbed. After all, it wasn't the climbers' fault that they were quiet enough to sneak up on house cats. They just were. So the neighborhood cats would sometimes get into a hissing snit for no reason that anyone could see. They were cats. No big deal. Dogs, on the other hand, were either to slow to see the climbers or too laid back to care. Maybe anything that different just didn't count if you were a dog. Not a bad way to go through life.
For anyone that was counting, there were three climbers out in the yard that night. The two out back were, in the very literal sense, rustling up some grub. The third, the younger one, was around the front of the house, content to munch on foliage in the yard. The house was dark and quiet, but not quite silent. Ray Meadows was in there on the couch, breathing the breath of the very much asleep. Long, slow deep breaths, but not quite snoring. That would be later, when he rolled over on his back about six. For now, it was enough that the young climber heard him and was curious. Used to hearing both Ray and Barbara asleep upstairs, this was something different. A noise like something sleeping in the lower part of this- whatever it is. The young climber looked up toward the porch and front door. Nothing there. But close. The climber made its way over to the steps. The noise was louder here. But not here. Up there. On the hard surface. The climber didn't like that. That was a slippery surface. It had almost fallen there not long ago. Not as bad as the roof, but enough to scare it. Spent the next three days in the tree, not moving. The climber wouldn't even think about the roof. Not any more.
Inside, Ray was sleeping without dreams. Out like the proverbial light. Above him in their bedroom, Barbara Meadows was also asleep but relaxed and dreaming. Something about wheat fields and sunshine. She was dreaming of Lyndon, but she had it all wrong. No wheat, just corn. Outside, the two climbers in the back yard were feasting on the bounty of the earth. In the front yard, one small climber too curious for its own good was up on the front porch. Looking through the front window, a collection of small panes of glass rather than one larger picture window, the climber saw the source of the noise. Ray was about as asleep as they get. Had it known about the spare key under the mat, the climber might have waltzed right in and rearranged the living room furniture without disturbing Mister Ray Meadows, asleep on the couch. He was that sound asleep. Maybe it was a good thing the climber didn't know about that key under the mat. It would have probably been right in the middle of repositioning the recliner and matching ottoman when Ray Meadows woke up without warning.
One moment Ray was sound asleep, chasing rabbits in the field so to speak, the next moment he was awake, looking out the window at something looking right back. The transition was so quick, he told himself he was still asleep. Except then he thought about and knew it didn't work that way. As soon as you tell yourself you're asleep, you're awake. Except when you think you're awake, then you're still asleep. Something like that. Ray had been asleep. Now his eyes were open and he was seeing- seeing what? Seeing a small shape peering in at the living room window. He knew what it had to be. He had seen the scuff marks out there on the porch. It was a climber. Ray didn't jump up, didn't try to get a better look, didn't move so much as a muscle. The motor-drive part of Ray's brain was still in that rabbit-chasing mode. He continued to watch the watcher. Was he waking up? Not really. He thought about Arthur Crutchfield under that tree in Hyde Park. Ray didn't move. Neither of them did.
This thing on the front porch glimmered a bit with that blue-black iridescence Ray had seen before. It didn't seem to be moving, but its color was shifting. If Ray jumped towards the window, what would happen? Would it try to blend into the porch? Ray decided probably not. It would run. One leap and it would be off the porch and halfway across the yard. Ray watched, the climber watched. Ray's breathing had changed a bit to reflect his waking somewhat, and the climber had gotten nervous about that. Whatever it was looking at was looking back. It knew it should run. Standing little more than twelve feet from a waking human was terrifying for it. It had to run. It couldn't run. It stood its ground and watched. Ray still hadn't moved any more than his eyes. And slowly at that. This odd stand-off continued for what seemed like three forevers for both the climber and Ray. It was less than three minutes. In the end, it was the climber that blinked first. Or rather, looked away. The others in the back yard were returning to the tree. It was time to go. In the distance, a car was coming up the street. The climber would be trapped on the porch as it passed. Ray might get to see this thing with some light on it if he was lucky. As the car swept the porch with light, the climber moved away from the window, hiding low at the base of the outer wall until the lights were gone. Before Ray's eyes could re-adjust to the darkness, it was gone. Over the wall and across the yard, up the tree and out of sight. It was gone for the night. Ray would be too, in a minute.
Ray shifted his position on the couch and turned to face the back. That's why he woke up in the first place. Time to turn over. He settled in with his head turned away from the window. Yes, this is more like it. He drifted back to sleep without thinking too much about what had just happened outside. It was no big deal to a sleeping man. Now if it had walked in and made a pot of coffee, that would be a big deal. Not this time. Ray was asleep. The night slowly drifted toward morning as Ray drifted deeper into dreamland.
In spite of the Late Night With Ray Show, Barbara Meadows had no trouble sleeping that night. The off and on clicking of Ray's keyboard never reached the bedroom and Ray's midnight ramblings around the house never disturbed her. When Ray went to sleep downstairs, there was no need to notify Barbara. She slept through the whole thing. Those dreams of Lyndon, however erroneous they might have been, were still not the sort of dreams that would wake anyone up. Just the "lost in the endless fields of wheat and sunshine" dreams that everyone has from time to time. Don't you? But Lyndon? Why Lyndon? She had never been there. Didn't even know anything about it, or really have much of an interest in it. She knew Ray did, though, and that was enough. Now from time to time her dreams seemed to be about Lyndon. The town, the fields, the trees. She had no idea what it really looked like- neither of them did. So she made it all up. Barbara pictured Lyndon more like Western Kansas. Big vistas of wheat rolling across the near-flat land to the horizon a million miles away. Huge grain silos dwarfing little white wood-sided houses in a little town of white buildings. There might be such a town, but it wasn't Lyndon.
Usually when she woke up, Barbara wouldn't remember the details of her "Lyndon". Just that she dreamt about it. Again. It wasn't an uncomfortable thing, just a persistent one. Something would have to give. Now with the morning light streaming through the window, Barbara woke with one word almost spoken out loud: Lyndon. Her first coherent waking thought? That they would have to go there. Today. She sat up and looked around. This wasn't Lyndon. This was home. Well, not quite. It wasn't home without Ray. No Ray. He must have stayed up all night surfing the Internet. Again. And wherever he is right now, she was going to bet that a pot of fresh coffee would bring him back.
On her feet, washed and robed, Barbara padded her way down the hall. No Ray in the other room. The computer was off. He must be down stairs. Ok, down the stairs and into the living room and- great: How'd the front window get so dirty? She had just cleaned it, now here it is all smeared. Yuck. Have to clean it again if they want to see anything out of it today. Would they even be there today? Weren't they going someplace? Oh, yeah, Lyndon. Barbara looked around and saw Ray sound asleep on the couch, face to the back. Yep, he was out of it. She knew the tell-tale signs of a sleeping Ray: Slightly curled up, face to the back of the couch, comforter rumpled over his feet and legs. Gone. Maybe fresh coffee would wake him up. That always works in the commercials.
Now, truth be told, I myself don't like the taste of coffee. Too bitter. I prefer tea. My wife is the same way. But we both agree: coffee smells great. As a matter of fact, I've yet to meet anyone who didn't like the smell of coffee. Don't write. I know you're out there. We just haven't met, that's all. Let's keep it that way. You're weird. Ray was not weird. Ray was normal. He was the most normal person he knew. And he knew some real snoozers. Once Barbara got the brewing underway in the kitchen, Ray didn't stand a chance. His good night's sleep (or what was left of it) was blown away like a light mist on a strong java-scented breeze. He was awake. No, he was AWAKE. That's more like it. In spite of only getting about four hour's sleep- interruption included- he was awake and up and ready to start the day. If he could only make it to that coffee pot first.
Ray made it to his feet, with the couch in a supporting role. He turned toward the front window. Something about that window. Did he see something last night? Something out there on the porch? He couldn't be sure. Maybe he did. Maybe he dreamt it. Whatever. No time to stand here and stare out the front window. He had an early date with Juan Valdez. Ray struggled across the living room and was pretty much self-propelled by the time he bounced off the wall and into the hallway. In his mind, he was doing his best Homer Simpson: "Mmmmmm, Coooooooooffffeeeee". All that leaked out, audibly, was a passable Elsie the Cow: "Mmmm Oooooo". It would have to do. At least until after that first cup.
Barbara Meadows, well-rested and ready for the day, was light years ahead of her husband. Strong coffee was brewing, toast was toasting, bacon was sizzling. Breakfast was close at hand. Ray managed to sit down just about one second ahead of his food and drink. Timing is everything, when it works.
Time is supposed to be nature's way of keeping everything from happening at once. Sometimes it doesn't work that way. Conversations, for instance. The first words out of both their mouths showed up at the exact same time:
Barbara, being the one that was actually awake and not just pretending, took the lead:
"Lyndon. I keep thinking about Lyndon. I think we should go there."
"Funny you should mention it."
"You've been thinking about Lyndon?"
"No, but I've been reading about London."
"London, England?"
"What's there?"
"Arthur Crutchfield. The first person to see climbers, I think."
"You think here's there, or you think he's the first person?"
"Both. Spent last night reading about his exploits in London during World War Two. That's when he saw them."
"And I think he still lives near the city, from what Gilbert Lawrence said."
"And I think we should pay him a visit, if you wouldn't mind a vacation in England?"
"I think I could tolerate it. But what about Lyndon?"
"Well, it's not exactly the bustling world city and tourist destination London is, now is it? You'd rather go to Lyndon, Illinois than London, England?"
"No, I guess not. It's just that we could drive over to Lyndon this morning for the price of a tank of gas. London is a bit further, even using a polar route."
"And we couldn't drive."
"And we couldn't drive, you're right there. Nothing gets by you."
"So you're saying maybe we should go over to Lyndon first before we go traipsing across the globe?"
"Isn't there somebody there in Lyndon? Someone whose seen a lot of these things?"
"Well, yes, there is. But Gilbert wouldn't tell me his name or anything about him. Just that he fled his family and the possibility of life in the loony bin to hide out in a small town. It has to be Lyndon because he was still sending in sighting reports and it skewed the map on the Internet to show where he was."
"Meaning either no one else in Lyndon is paying any attention or this guy is really seeing things."
That last statement from Ray forced the issue Barbara had so far managed to avoid. No way around it now. It was time. She had to ask:
"Are you seeing things?"
Ray thought about that one for quite awhile. So long that Barbara considered repeating the question. Except that she didn't want to. Let it go. Don't ask again. Then he answered.
"I don't know. I've considered the possibility that it's all just some sort of power of suggestion thing."
"But you have proof."
"Yeah, proof. A torn shingle and a weird blob of plaster. Some proof."
"You've seen them."
"Have I? You haven't. Why me?"
"You were there."
"You live here, too. Everyplace I go, you go. You've looked out that bedroom window. You've been out in the back yard at night. Why haven't you seen them?"
"I wasn't looking for them."
"That's my point. Maybe I was."
"And you saw them."
"Saw what? Something that doesn't exist?"
"Which are?"
"I don't know- you're the one reading all the information on the Internet."
"Mass electronic hallucination. A gang goof."
"A what?"
"Something everyone says is real that isn't."
"A lie?"
"At this point, I don't think these people on the 'Net see it that way. It may have started with one person posting an entry that they knew to be a complete fabrication just to see what happened."
"And it got out of hand?"
"Yeah, something like that. Everybody wants to be a part of something. Everyone wants to get the in-joke."
"So one guy says he saw something in the trees and five people back him up on it?"
"And each one adds to the story. The original person knew it was a lie. He made it up. But now it's out of his control. More and more people jump on that bandwagon and it picks up speed, leaving the first guy far behind. He couldn't stop it now if he tried."
"Even if he said he lied?"
"Doesn't matter. That first story is no longer important. What people perceive as current events, real or otherwise, will make his original lie unimportant. Too many "true" stories came in the door after it. You couldn't prove any of them in a court of law."
"All lies?"
"Lies? That's such a harsh word. Some of these people believe they saw whatever it was they said they saw. They want to believe it that bad."
"So how do you separate the sheep from the goats?"
"Good question. I guess we could start with a trip to Lyndon."
"Sounds like a plan to me."
"Let me do just one quick thing on the computer and I'll be ready to go."
"After you get dressed."
"Oh, yeah. That, too."
Ray headed up the stairs for the computer (and some clothes) while Barbara cleaned up the kitchen. Inside of half an hour, they were out the door (dressed) and gone. It was still early on that Sunday morning. Traffic was light and they were out of town and cruising cross-country in no time. Good day for a drive and they were headed for Lyndon.
They were lucky in their route out of town. The road to Lyndon was not a major highway. It was barely a minor one. Within twenty miles of their house, they were rolling along a narrow two-lane road through farm country. Cows and horses out numbered people by a considerable ratio. By the time they were at the Illinois border, and nearly out of gas, it was obvious that they were going to have to find a major road to find a gas station. And soon. Let this big car run out of gas on a lonely back road and it would be a long walk to nowhere before they found anything to put in it. With a few judicious turns, the found a small town with an even smaller gas station. Which, of course, was not open. Sunday morning in the country was not Sunday morning in the city. Out came the map and the shortest possible route was planned to an Interstate. Always the Sure Thing for fuel. Fifteen minutes later, they rolled into the combination gas station convenience store luncheonette car wash near Grayville.
The car took on half a gallon more than the owner's manual said it would hold. Talk about running on empty. Ray contemplated this little observation and looked at the map yet again. Twice in one day. A desperate man. They could stay on the safe, smooth and essentially boring Interstate and take the long way around toward Lyndon. Or they could drive off to the southwest on these small country roads again for the more direct, scenic and interesting route. Ray studied the map, and figured the distance to Lyndon from Grayville. The car had a full tank of gas. They could drive there and back on this one tank with a comfortable margin for error and/or sightseeing. Back roads it was. With a supply of Dr. Peppers, Oreos, beef sticks and assorted snacks from the convenience store, the Meadows ambled back out onto the blacktop, headed sort of south and back into the rural Midwest. It was a perfect cloudless early summer kind of day.
In the interest of fuel economy and casual driving, Ray left the air conditioner off. They rolled down all the windows in the car and let the breeze blow in. Something they'd never do in the city. Roll down your car windows in the city and all you get are bus fumes, transients and street toughs. Go ahead, ask for trouble. But keep your windows rolled up. Rolling along at no more than about forty-five miles an hour on those (thankfully paved) back roads, Ray decided to complete the overall effect by adding the radio to the mix. AM music only, of course. They had no trouble at all picking up a station out of Evansville. The rasp and static were the perfect final ingredients to a drive in the country on a sunny summer day. The farm and field smells coming through the windows kept them constantly turning and looking. Even the occasional slow moving stake bed was taken in stride. By the time they stopped for an early lunch in Harrisburg, nothing could have spoiled their day.
The Forty-Five Cafe sounded like a gunslinger's dream. Something out of the old West plunked down in the Midwest. Ray and Barbara pulled in to the parking lot and got out to stretch their legs. A perfect day. Not a cloud in the sky. Ray thought about what he had been reading the night before: Cold and rainy England in late summer and at war. This was Illinois in early summer, over fifty years later. Not quite the same thing. This was better. They scruffed their way across the gravel lot and up onto the cafe's front porch. Through the wooden screen door and into the darkness, the Meadows had to stand at the entrance for a moment for their eyes to adjust. Even then, they had to squint and look around. It was odd. They couldn't see any Western motif or theme at all. No saddles, no ropes on the walls or branding irons. The waitress was not wearing cowboy boots. Was this not the Forty-Five Cafe? Was there another restaurant next door, and they just wandered into the wrong one? It took Ray until they sat down at their table to figure it out what was going on. He wondered if Barbara had been thinking the same thing.
"No, but it does seem a bit plain. I was expecting a Western Bar-B-Que sort of place. This isn't it."
"Nope. Wrong forty-five."
"What do you mean?"
"It's not named after the gun, Annie Oakley."
"What, then?"
"The road. We've been motoring down U.S. 45 since that last big intersection north of town. It's the U.S. Highway Forty-Five Cafe. Nothing western about it. It's a north-south road."
"Excellent deduction, Sherlock. Now buy me lunch."
"Yes, Ma'am."
The waitress's timing was perfect, even without the boots.
"What can I get you folks?"
"Ah, two ice teas, for starters and a moment to look at the menu."
"Take your time, I'll be right back."
Whatever the cafe lacked in Bar-B-Que it made up for in ample portions. Their early lunch turned into a major feeding frenzy and it was almost an hour before Ray and Barbara, both stuffed to the gills, were headed back toward that screen door by way of the cash register. Their waitress also manned the register. Ray suspected she did the cooking as well.
"Hope everything was to you liking."
"It was great. I may never have to eat again."
"You only have to hold off 'til you come back."
"Good idea. We might be here for dinner."
"You're headed some place close by?"
"You have family in Lyndon? My brother lives over there."
"No, no. Just wanted to see it."
Even though Ray was able to deliver that last line with a friendly smile, it came across as odd to the waitress.
"You just wanted to see....Lyndon?"
The waitress gave Ray his change with a shrug.
"Well, ok, whatever you say. I just hope you won't be too disappointed when you get there."
"Not as long as we know we're headed back here for dinner."
"There you go!"
"See you soon."
The Meadows left the small cafe and had to get their eyes readjusted to the bright sunshine all over again. It was still a beautiful cloudless day. Now Ray understood the appeal of big convertible cars. This was their day. Roll the top back on a big Buick and let her rip across the countryside. And just watch that gas gauge drop like a stone. Sounded like fun, though. He did take the time to roll down the back windows, so they were as close to a convertible as they were likely to get. Short of hitting one. Leaving Harrisburg, Ray found himself zig-zagging on country back roads, following signs to Lyndon. Such as they were. Every time he thought he was lost, a sign at the next little crossroad would point the way. Tough to get lost out here with no vandals to swipe the signs. Within an hour of leaving the Forty-five Cafe in Harrisburg, Ray and Barbara Meadows rolled slowly through Lyndon, Illinois. Whatever it was they were expecting to see, this wasn't it.
Barbara, as you know, had pictured a flat prairie town with lots of white houses. Ray knew they land wouldn't be flat, but somehow he had an image of more ramshackle sort of town. A town down on its luck. Sure, it had been at one time almost eighty years ago. Now things were different. No, it wasn't a rich hotbed of upscale delights. There was not one yuppie coffee bar or trendy combination book shop and bakery. There were no BMW's parked at the curb. Mostly Fords. But it was a clean little town even if it was considerably out of the mainstream. Ray cruised through on the main road and came to a halt on the far side. Due to all the twists and turns, they were actually on the north side of town. He wasn't so much disappointed as resigned to the finality of the situation.
"Ok, been there, done that, now what?"
"Did you want to try to find that guy?"
"We don't even know his name."
"It's a small town."
"And your point would be?"
"Somebody must know him."
"Is there a polite way to ask 'Pardon me, where's the loony?' That seems a bit too forward for rural sensibilities."
"You're the great master detective. Any ideas?"
"Not a one. It was a nice drive out here, though."
"Ok, how about this: Single guy moves into a small town, doesn't know anybody. Where's he stay?"
"At the motel we saw in the middle of town?"
"Very good, Sherlock, but it's only a start."
"What do you mean?"
"He probably wouldn't stay at that motel for more than a week or so. It's expensive and right smack dab in the middle of town."
"And now YOUR point would be?"
"He'd get a small apartment somewhere in town. A cottage out back or a room over a garage. Someplace out of the way. Nondescript. Hidden. He is hiding, isn't he?"
"Excellent, Mrs. Watson. I suppose now I should blurt out that the game is afoot."
"I never understood that line."
They drove slowly back through town. This time they had something to look for. Ray made left turn at what had to be the center of town, just past the motel. The little country road got smaller by the yard. Suddenly Ray had Barbara's left arm across his face, blocking his view.
"There. That could be it."
"What? He's living up your sleeve?"
"That's all I see- your arm. What are you pointing at?"
"A garage apartment. Right next to that house and set back a little. See it?"
"I see it. Let's keep going. We'll turn around in a minute. I'll bet everyone in town has seen us by now."
Ray kept the big car moving, and as soon as they were out of sight of the last houses he found a side road to wheel the beast around. Your basic two-point V-8 turn. All horsepower and power steering. Cruising back through town, Ray picked a speed fast enough to avoid suspicion but slow enough to catch the name on that second mailbox. Barbara had pen in hand, ready to write. She was also on the side closest to the box.
"Vaan? What kind of name is Vaan?"
"Sounds very Dutch. Three Oh Nine and a half."
"Say what?"
"Three Oh Nine and a half. that's the address."
"Ok, got it. Now what?"
"Now a phone booth."
"You're going to call him?"
"Nope, I'm not that brave yet. Just want to see something."
"I think I saw a booth back by that restaurant next to the motel."
"Works for me."
Ray wheeled the car up to the phone booth and hopped out. A quick check of the incredibly small book revealed what he suspected. There was only one "Vaan" in the book. S. Vaan, to be exact. And the address matched: 309 1/2 Wayland Street. Ray wrote down the phone number and headed back to the car.
"So there's a pretty good chance that's our boy."
"Why's that?"
"Only one in the book. No relatives in town. There were multiples of virtually every other last name in that book. Except Vaan. That's the most wonderful thing."
"What's that?"
"He's the only one."
"Clever. Now what, Mister Detective Sir?"
"I have no earthly idea."
"Seems silly to just head on back. But we've already had lunch and all."
"And I don't know about you, but I'm still stuffed."
Ray was still standing outside the car, and was staring intently at the sky to the north. Now his eyebrows were scrunched together as he stared and frowned at the sky. Barbara couldn't figure out what he saw that was so unpleasant. It was a pretty little town, after all. Much more interesting than she had imagined.
"What are you frowning at?"
"The sky."
"It's perfect. Blue and cloudless. What's the problem?"
"The problem is up there. To the north. It ain't blue no more."
Barbara got out of the car for a better look. Ray was right. Right as rain would be more accurate. Just above the northern horizon, stretching far to the east and west, dark clouds were rolling in ahead of a frontal system. An Alberta Clipper? Could be. It looked strong and black. And fast. They could see the clouds moving as one solid wall of darkness headed due south. Right at them. Ray was the first to move and jumped back in the car. Barbara was right behind him.
"Time to go!"
"No joke."
Ray stayed long enough to reach around and roll up those back windows. He made sure they were tight and the rear doors locked. As though the rain had an effect on unlocked doors. He was a creature of urban habits. Barbara couldn't stop staring at the sky to the north. How could this be? A perfect day. Absolutely perfect. So perfect, neither of them had bothered to watch The Weather Channel before they left their house that morning. At least then, they would have been warned. A strong cold front coming in that afternoon. Heavy rain, high winds, a chance for damaging hail. Tornado warnings by one o'clock. The local forecast had featured that "bad weather alert" red background since about eleven. About the time they stopped for lunch. Oh boy.
The ride back wasn't much faster than the ride out, just not as casual. You can only go so fast on those little back roads and they were a long ways from the Interstate. Ray had considered, for a moment, changing direction and trying to catch the super slab home. But now it was out of their way, and he couldn't be sure about the fuel situation. He sure didn't want a repeat of that fume-breather they had this morning. Or worse: Out of gas in the middle of a bad storm. No way. Stick to the plan and get back home.
They went right through Harrisburg and never slowed down for the Forty-Five Cafe. That dinner would have to wait for another time. Heading to the northeast, they were running themselves closer to the advancing front with every mile. It was a collision course that was bound to hit before they made it home. They could tell that back in Harrisburg, where the first feathery high clouds were streaming overhead with the heavier grey clouds coming in fast behind them. The temperature was still warm, but the wind was starting to pick up. Leaving Harrisburg, Ray noticed more leaves and small trash blowing across the road. Halfway to Grayville, the wind was blowing the car around and they had to roll up those front windows to keep the dust out. Ray had his window half way up when he shivered. A change in the weather. A cold front. Arthur Crutchfield was running ahead a cold front to find the child that was the climber in the park. This was all too weird. What ever happened to Ray's normal, boring life?
Ray Meadows rolled into Grayville, Illinois with a plan: If they topped off the tank there, and maybe got a little smackerel of something to eat just in case, they could easily hit the Interstate there and take it back home. It was a bit longer than the trip out, but somehow it seemed safer. And they'd have plenty of gas. That was the important thing. With the car at the gas pump and the engine shut off, Barbara went for food while Ray filled the tank. It was one of those don't-mess-around-get-it-done-and-get-gone stops. No time to talk, just time to go. All of which made Ray wonder what the heck was going on with Barbara, who was just standing there at the counter. She wasn't moving. What was going on in there? Ray finished pumping, turned off the pump and hoofed it into the store. Barbara was transfixed by the television playing behind the counter: The local weather.
"You ok?"
"Yeah, sorry. The weather."
"How bad?"
"Bad hail storm in Effingham. A tornado in Mattoon. All headed this way."
"Can we beat it?"
"I don't know, they haven't shown the radar."
"Let's try. We'll take the Interstate from here."
"It's longer."
"Yeah, but it's faster and safer."
"You're the driver. Let's go."
Barbara picked up the sack of food and another of canned drinks. Ray paid for everything and they headed for the car. The sky was black and they could smell the rain. Wind was whipping debris around the gas station as they sealed themselves in their car and pointed it toward the on ramp. For a full fifteen minutes, it looked as though they were out running the storm. Twenty miles from Grayville, the hail hit the car with no warning.
Ray felt the car lurch to the right was the wind blew hard against the side. He kept it on the road, but his ears were telling him otherwise. It sounded like they were raking the guardrail at seventy miles an hour. He was wide-eyed and stunned. What was wrong? He was still in his lane. There were no other cars or trucks near him. WHAT WAS THAT NOISE? Barbara saw her husband's panic and figured it out first.
"It's hail! The storm caught us-Look at the road!"
Ray looked. The windshield was still dry and untouched with the wind blowing strong from the left rear quarter of the car. Ahead and the road, it looked like a major accident involving a couple of truckloads of ping-pong balls. But there was no wreck in sight. It was hail, covering the road and pounding down hard enough to break through the car's rear window. The only reason the Meadow's windows remained intact was their speed- they were moving with the storm. To them, the hail looked like it was coming straight down. In reality, it was moving across the ground at close to sixty miles an hour. So were they. If they stopped, the storm would blow right through the rear glass. If they kept going, they'd be driving on ice. Ray could only offer three words of advice.
"Tighten your seatbelt."
If he had a plan- or any idea at all- he wasn't sharing it with his wife. The noise outside was overwhelming. Ice hitting the car from above, ice bouncing off the underside as they speed across it. It was starting to look like January out there, and they sure weren't going to outrun it. Ray's vocabulary dropped to two words:
"Hold on!"
Barbara held on as best she could as Ray hit the brakes as hard as they could. The sacks of food and drinks went under the dashboard in a hurry. The car rocked between braking and sliding on the hailstones. She could see something in front of them- an overpass. Ray slid the car to a stop just past it and off on the shoulder of the road. He threw the car in reverse and backed up to where the overpass sheltered them from the worst of the storm. The wind still howled and there was ice everywhere, but the car wasn't being pummeled for now. They could breathe again.
Some Chinese guy once said that a hard rain couldn't last all day. A few thousand years later and a few thousand miles to the East, he was still right. As quickly as it had come up on them it was gone, leaving just a light sprinkling of rain before there was nothing but the wind, the clouds and a weird green cast to the sky. Looking up at the sky, Ray decided he preferred the pounding hail to this.
"Quick- what did the weather report say?"
"Hail in Effingham, tornadoes in Mattoon, where ever that is. Why?"
"Mattoon. It's 30 miles north of Effingham. This thing's moving south at about a mile a minute. That gives us close to thirty minutes before the next bad wave."
"How far can we get in thirty minutes?"
"Not far enough. Remember, we don't want to catch up to what just went over us."
"Good point. No need to go through that again."
"Well, let's do what we can. That turn to the north on I-65 is going to be our undoing no matter what. We'll be headed almost straight into it then."
"I say let's go as far as we can. If we have to stop, we have to stop."
"That's the spirit. Any Dr. Pepper in those cans on the floor?"
Barbara dug the crumpled sacks out from under the dashboard and put them back on the seat. Ray took one last look around and floored the gas. The car roared away through what was left of the ice storm. In their short delay after the hail, the wind had managed to do a fair job of sweeping the roadway clear of ice and trash. It was wet, but clean. It was that green tint to the sky that kept Ray on edge, and looking up and back at every opportunity.
Fueled by Dr. Pepper's heady caffeine edge, Ray kept the car cruising at sixty-five. There was no reason to go any faster. Every few minutes, rain would start to dance across the windshield. Ray would back off, the rain would stop. It was easy enough to see the rain on the road in front of them. But not right where they were. They were surfing between waves of weather with a three ton V8 board. Ray would have tried to hang ten, but he didn't want to take his shoes off. They made the bypass connection around sprawling Louisville (actually New Albany on this side of the river) and began their hard drive to the north on I-65. The situation changed immediately, and not for the better.
No more easy drive with a strong tail wind. Now that wind was howling down on them out of the north-northwest. Not quite head on. Head on would have been better. This was rocking the boat. Ray kept both hands tight on the wheel. The sky was getting darker. Or maybe greener. Tough to tell. Too busy driving. Barbara watched the sky ahead of them and to the west. Rain was coming, no doubt about that. Lots of it. It was the extra excitement that could come with it that had them both so tense. Tornadoes in open country. Easy to spot, hard to outrun. If worse came to worse, their only hope would be another panic stop under an overpass. The further they went, the further between the overpasses. They were between towns in rural Indiana. This was not good.
Just before Scottsburg the weather won the race. The rain- and just rain- pounded down with the wind. Ray had the headlights on bright and the wipers on fast. Still, their speed dropped. From sixty to forty, then to twenty. They were moving, but just barely. At least they weren't alone. Other cars, and some trucks, were still rolling along as best they could through the storm and standing water. What few overpasses they encountered were already packed with cars whose drivers had decided it wasn't worth the effort. Park now, wait here, go later. Probably not a bad idea, if they could find any room to do the same. Ray thought about leaving the Interstate and taking his chances on the back roads, but somehow, this still seemed safer. Just before Seymour, possibly the world's most famous small town, the Interstate twists and turns on itself. This gave Ray and Barbara a chance to see what they could of the storm from every direction. So far, it was just bad rain and wind. Ray thought the wind was dying down a bit now, but it could just be the hills blocking it. For a few moments, north of Seymour, they thought they heard a train close by. Both of them knew exactly what that meant. They didn't have to say a word. It was the classic description of the sound of a tornado: "It sounded like a freight train." Wide-eyed, they looked frantically in every direction. The loud whistling noise they heard was enough to drive them over the edge. Then they saw it- a bright light moving with them off to the east. A train. It really was a train. The freight line paralleled the Interstate. Their relief turned to hilarity as they laughed their way through the storm from that point on. Sure, it was still raining. But maybe they weren't going to die. Not right that minute, anyway.
They punched through the last of the rain just before they left the Interstate and took the surface streets through town to their home. The local streets were flooded, but it didn't look like there was any wind damage. No tornadoes. All the traffic lights were working, a blessing in any weather. Ray and Barbara Meadows rolled into their driveway and shut off the car precisely at five o'clock that Sunday evening. What a long strange trip that had been. Ray opened the garage door and put the car away. They'd be having dinner at home tonight, no question about it. Was it worth it? All the driving, the storm, the terror? They wouldn't know until Ray made a phone call, later that night. Only Gilbert Lawrence could tell them the value of their little adventure. And he may only do so by accident.
There were no phone calls made that night. As Barbara made dinner in the kitchen, Ray made that big mistake- he laid down on the couch. Having been up until three o'clock the night before, up early and driving all day- to say nothing of the storm, so I won't- Ray had no idea how tired he really was. Until he decided to relax on the couch. Just for a moment. He kicked his shoes off and rolled over. That was it. Out like the proverbial light. Barbara called him for dinner an hour later. Had to call twice. Had to go in and get him. He was out of it. Completely groggy, Ray did wake up, stood up and staggered off to the bathroom to wash up for dinner.
Ray made it through dinner without falling asleep. Barbara kept the conversation minimal and low-keyed. She could see that her husband was not going to be up for any late night adventures on the Internet- or anywhere else, for that matter. It was just after six and the sun was headed for the horizon. Barbara knew Ray would be down first. As she cleaned up after dinner Ray headed back to the couch, thought better of it and went upstairs. By seven-thirty Ray Meadows was stretched across his bed, still dressed but sound asleep. Outside the world was getting dark. The front had blown through, washing everything in its path. The storm had not been nearly so bad here. No hail, no tornadoes. The Meadow's car showed only minimal damage from the ice: A few dimples across the top rear edge of the trunk lid. That was about it. They were lucky. But it got Ray to thinking, before he fell asleep. What happens to climbers when they die? Why hadn't any one found a little blue body, fallen from a tree? Do they not die? Do they even live? Had he dreamt the whole thing? Were they simply a product of his over-worked imagination? These were not the best thoughts to have before sleeping. By nine o'clock, when Barbara came upstairs and woke Ray up to get him out of his clothes, he was glad to be awake again. Glad to have the chance to start over. Gotta think happier thoughts, Ray.

To Be Continued....
Copyright 1996,2010 Chip Haynes

Return to the main table of contents for this novel http://www.republibot.com/content/original-fiction-climbers-chip-haynes-...