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August 30th, 2002 Friday
It had been overcast for most of the morning, but the swift arrival of a brown haze and low churning clouds had been tugging at Chuck Notestine's gut for the past ten minutes. The sky didn't look right. It didn't feel right. A sinister chill filled the air, bringing with it an anxious silence that suggested something other than a common afternoon storm in Greeley, Colorado.
Rain began to spit from above, quickly evolving into dense drops that pelted Notestine's face like a schoolyard bully looking to cause a scene. A sudden burst of wind screamed into him, knocking him back on his heels, and sending his clipboard to the ground. He lumbered off balance across dirt and grass, swearing. He found his footing just as a pair of tumbleweeds bounced off his body. He rose his arm up to protect his eyes when more began whisking their way past him.
Inside his trailer, just a few yards away, his radio let out a screeching, familiar howl that tightened his stomach. He swung his head toward the camper's open door. It flapped wildly from the continuing gust.
"The National Weather Service in Denver, Colorado, has issued a tornado warning for the following counties," came a monotone, automated voice through the speakers.
The rest of the message was lost on Notestine as he lifted his gaze over the roof of the trailer and the chain-link fence that wobbled behind it. Through tears drawn from the wind, he gasped at the sight of a hulking stretch of darkness that filled the southern sky. It began along the prairie horizon and stretched and widened its way up to the heavens. It hadn't been there a minute earlier.
"Shit," he growled.
His heart pounded while his head swiveled like a weathervane back and forth across the acreage. He glared past cement blocks and ventilation pipes that pointed up from the ground. The pine trees just inside of the west fence were now arched like bows, their tips penetrating the barbed wire up top. The tall grass to the north danced like waves in an ocean, obscuring his view of the back part of the property. He wished he had mowed it all down with the tractor a day earlier, as he had planned.
"Avalanche!" he cried out, freckled hand cupped to his mouth. His eyes scanned the area. "Here boy! Avalanche!" He let out a loud whistle that was barely audible over the elements.
The wind strengthened, shoving him a few steps to his side as the steel lid of his barbeque pit toppled past him. The rain came harder and faster, and within seconds, small pellets of hail began bouncing off the ground. He couldn't believe how quickly the situation was going to hell.
When a chunk of ice caught him square on the forehead, he let out a grunt and turned back toward his trailer. The colorful awning in front of it had collapsed and was now wrapped around the picnic table where he normally enjoyed his morning coffee. The door pounded the trailer's sidewall as items crashed to the floor inside. Notestine was tempted to rush in and grab some cash and keepsakes before it was too late, but his seventy-one-year-old legs and the approaching blackening void convinced him otherwise.
The widower had survived Vietnam, two heart attacks, and a head-on collision in '89 that should have killed him. He sure as hell wasn't going to cash in his chips for Mother Nature — not with one of the safest strongholds in the state buried just a couple hundred yards away.
"Avalanche!" he wailed as he made his way onto an old cement walkway riddled with cracks.
With his arms folded over his head to protect himself from the increasing hail, he brushed past a return-air box and some ducts. He slid his way around the corner of an enormous horizontal steel door raised a couple of feet off the concrete. It stretched out for a hundred feet, and by the time Notestine had reached the opposite corner, he found himself hunched over and desperately out of breath.
"Avalanche!" he called out again, his voice waning.
Through the maddening shrieks of the wind, he thought he heard a distant bark. When he faced to the northeast, he caught a glimpse of something white and stout barreling through long grass and shrubs. Notestine's eyes swelled and his lips formed a desperate grin.
"Here boy! Come here, boy!" he yelled, waving his arms frantically.
His loyal companion of the past two years emerged from the grass, continuing his sprint toward his master. Blowing debris and hail peppered the pit bull's body as it galloped across the sidewalk. When Avalanche reached Notestine, the dog went to its hind legs and placed its front paws on the man's sternum. His long tongue jetted out between pink jowls, aiming for his master's face. Notestine spun away, letting the dog drop to all fours. He turned his focus to the top railing of an outside metal staircase a few yards away. It led down a steep, concealed hill.
"Come on!" he yelled to the dog.
The sound of marble-sized hail striking the metal door rang out like a carnival shooting gallery as the two left the cement. Avalanche jogged alongside Notestine until they reached the top step. The man's hands went to the rails, but when he turned his head to take another look at the twister, his eye caught the top of a light-colored, hardtop camper on the other side of the west fence.
"Oh God," he gasped.
He had seen the camper hauled in by an early '70s Chevy pickup that morning, while he was replacing trash bags in the campground — one of his duties as the site caretaker. But with the rest of the park empty, he had forgotten about it.
Notestine prayed that the truck's driver had left, and that only a vacant camper remained, but with wavering tree limbs hindering his view, he couldn't know for sure. He was about to take his first step down the stairs when his conscience began pounding him as hard as the hail.
"Dammit!" he snarled, turning back toward the camper. He placed both hands to his mouth and yelled, "Tornado! A tornado is coming!" He could barely hear his own voice. He knew anyone inside the camper wouldn't be able to.
He blew air through his nose before nodding his head and squaring his jaw. "You stupid son of a bitch," he muttered. He then made his way through the wind and hail toward the fence.
When he reached the fence, he peered through an opening between some swaying pines on the other side. With a better view of the campground, Notestine spotted the pickup parked right in front of the trailer. The driver hadn't left.
Avalanche let out a loud yelp, and Notestine spun his head toward him. The dog's head was lowered and his tail was wedged between his legs. The hail was bouncing off his body, but the dog refused to leave its master.
"Avalanche, go to the tunnel!" Notestine commanded. "The tunnel!" In a flash, the dog turned and bolted toward the stairs. He flew down them effortlessly, quickly leaving Notestine's sight. A memory of Avalanche as a puppy comically falling down those same stairs flashed through his mind. The incident was how the dog had earned his name.
Notestine swallowed and rifled through his jeans pocket as he let the wind shove him into the fence. He pulled out a ring of keys. His hands shook as he sorted through them. When he found a small copper key, he placed it in his mouth and held it in his teeth. The rest of the keys dangled in front of his chin.
Covering his head with one arm, he used the other to grab a handful of fence. He pulled himself along it as the sky darkened and the wind roared like a train engine. Notestine refused to look to the south again. He feared what he would see.
When he reached a padlocked gate, he pried a family of tumbleweeds from it and stripped the key from his mouth. He poked it into the lock. With a quick twist and the lift of the latch, the gate swung open and slammed wickedly against the other side of the fence, knocking from it a sign reading, "No Trespassing. Government Property."
The wind ushered Notestine past an overturned bench and the tall, steel flag pole that he attended to every morning and evening. The American and Colorado flags hoisted high above were ripping free of their hooks. Wooden planks that made up the walls of a small outhouse to his right moaned from strain. Loose shingles from the building's roof were ripped free and carried high into the air.
Notestine kept his legs moving to prevent himself from falling. He crossed a dirt road, where airborne gravel assaulted his backside. When he reached a picnic shelter at the edge of the campground, he threw his arms around one of its metal pillars. The shelter was cemented into the ground, making it a useful crutch for Notestine to steady his body against. The wobbly roof above gave him some relief from the hail.
Breathing hard and tasting blood in his mouth, Notestine angled his eyes toward the camper. As he had noticed that morning, the twenty-foot travel trailer had an unusual look to it. There was a customized extra axle and dual wheels at its rear, as if to haul extra weight — something he had never seen before on a camper.
Through flying trash and dirt, he spotted a male figure in a hooded sweatshirt hunched on his knees between the back of the truck and the trailer. The man was small in size — his arms and legs so short that he almost looked like a kid. A glimpse of a mustache from between the edges of his hood, however, proved otherwise.
At first, Notestine believed the man was clinging to the truck's trailer hitch for dear life. The man's moving arms revealed that he was working hard to attach the hitch to the trailer. Exhaust was pumping from the truck's tailpipe before disappearing in the wind. He was trying to outrun the tornado ... with trailer in tow.
"No!" Notestine yelled, waving one arm as best he could in the wind, while holding on to the pillar with the other. "It won't work! Come inside!" Whether it was Notestine's subdued voice or the movement of his arm that caught the man's attention, the hooded stranger was now staring back at him. The man pulled himself to his feet by the rim of the truck's tailgate and waved Notestine off with his arm. A torn-off tree branch bounced its way across the ground and struck the man in the shoulder, knocking him down.
"Dammit," Notestine growled. He let go of the pillar and lumbered his way toward the man, the wind and the debris it carried trying their best to veer him off course.
There was so much hail on the ground that it felt as if he were crossing over snow. Its descent from the sky had begun to let up, but with the wind only worsening, Notestine knew the situation couldn't be more dire.
By the time Notestine reached the man, the stranger had pulled himself back up to his feet and was desperately hugging the sidewall of his truck. Notestine joined him. The wind had knocked off the stranger's hood, revealing the round face of an Asian man with dark eyes, angled eyebrows, and long salt-and-pepper hair.
"You can't outrun it!" Notestine yelled at him, spray flying out of his mouth. "If we don't get inside the silo right now, we're both dead!"
"No!" the man yelled back. "I need my trailer!"
"You'll die!" Notestine screamed. "The tornado will crush your truck and trailer like a beer can!"
"I can't leave it!
"Forget it! It's not worth dying for!"
At that moment, something about the stranger's face rang familiar to Notestine, as if the two had met before. The thought quickly fled with the sick, deafening howl that blasted through air above. Both men's heads spun to witness a horrific sight to the south: long steel arms from a heavy-duty farm irrigation system tumbling toward them across the prairieland.
Notestine grabbed the man by his sweatshirt. "Inside! Now!"
In one fluent move, the man snapped his arms upwards, freeing himself from Notestine's grip. Before Notestine could process what had happened, he found a pistol pointed directly at his face. Behind it were the man's narrow, unflinching eyes.
"What are you doing?" Notestine cried. He staggered back a few steps along the side of the truck, eyes wide and mouth open.
"I'm leaving." He spoke with an eerie directness and calmness that seemed miles apart from the current situation. "Because this trailer is worth dying for."
With that, he turned and pried open his truck door. When it swung open, he leaped inside.
"Fuck!" Notestine shouted, backing away from the truck.
The stranger put the Chevy in gear just as a large object struck Notestine from behind. Notestine felt as if he were floating outside of his body for a moment. His teeth rattled in his mouth as he dropped to his knees. More objects rained down on his body, and he covered his head with his arms as golf-ball-sized hail began to bounce off the ground beside him like rubber balls.
A new explosion of wind shoved him forward to his stomach. He raised his face from the blanket of ice beneath him, watching the taillights of the stranger's trailer leave the dirt road loop that hugged the campground. The camper bobbled though long grass and scrub, and just as the truck pulled it down into the gully below, he watched the back of its shell drop open like a drawbridge whose chains had snapped, exposing some type of construction equipment. Both the truck and trailer were gone from view a second later.
The earth below Notestine trembled, and a relentless, earsplitting whistle echoed off the insides of his head. He felt himself being dragged along the ground, and he fought to grab onto anything he could. His shoes were pulled from his feet, and his fingers raked through soil, grass, and ice until they found the metal base of a mounted charcoal grill whose top had snapped off. It only stuck out about six inches from the ground.
It was too late to run. Too late to take shelter. The only chance he had was staying flat and saying the quick prayer that flowed from between his lips. His hands clutched the grill's pole as his shirt was ripped from his body and his flesh stretched from his bones. When the wind twisted him onto his side, he angled his eyes up at the sky. It was nearly black, full of nebulous clutter that expanded with each passing moment.
A long plank of wood crashed to the ground beside him before being carried off again. Mangled water pipes cartwheeled past his head. A rush of air slid under his body and flipped him onto his back, stripping one of his hands loose from the pole. He forced his eyes open against the wind and watched as objects fell back to earth. The last thing he saw was a sink basin from the outhouse, half a second before it crushed his skull.CHAPTER 2
May 26th, 2003 Monday
With a flashlight clenched in his trembling hand, a stalky eight-year-old boy with short, dark hair and rosy cheeks stood in front of his uncle's Ford pickup. Its thirty-year-old engine ticked in the cold night air. The boy placed his free hand over one of the truck's large, round headlights. It was lit, but he couldn't feel its warmth. His eyes slid over to the tall, thick pine trees a couple dozen yards away. His spread fingers cast distorted, sinister shadows across their branches.
A gun shot rang out, and the boy's head whipped toward a familiar wooden home to his left. The echo of the blast rattled through his head as breath visibly poured from his mouth. He clicked his flashlight on and heard his own heartbeat as he raced to the front steps of the building. When he reached them, he saw that the front door was half open. He aimed his flashlight through the doorway, revealing the details of a shag rug on a wood floor. At the far corner of the rug was a dark red stain that glistened under his beam.
The boy swallowed. "Uncle? Are you okay?" he shouted though the door, his voice cracking. "What happened?" When he received no answer, he bit his lip and slowly began climbing the stairs. The planks beneath his feet groaned from his weight, and though there were only three steps, his legs were heavy as if he were climbing a fire tower. He reached the top and pushed the door wide. Its hinges cried.
A gurgling sound rose from the floor a few feet away, and when the boy guided his flashlight toward it, he saw the wavering soles of a pair of cowboy boots staring back at him. The boy gasped. He jogged forward, his legs pumping but his body making little progress. He felt as though his feet were being swallowed by quicksand. He finally snarled and lunged forward. He fell to the floor in a heap, his flashlight exploding into pieces beside him.
Though the beam was gone, the room was now brightly lit. The man on the floor just inches away wore jeans, a flannel shirt, and a belt buckle the size of a boxing champ's prize. A tall straw cowboy hat sat on the floor, blocking the man's face from the boy's view.
As the gurgling noise continued, the boy's hand went to the hat. His fingers formed around its crown, and the boy pulled it toward his own body, exposing an elderly man's face. It was Uncle Zed.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Safeguard"
Copyright © 2019 John A. Daly.
Excerpted by permission of Boutique of Quality Books Publishing Company.
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