Jack pulls over for a cup of coffee in the middle of the afternoon. The truck stop has a gas station with a squat little diner attached, and despite the post-lunch, pre-dinner time of day, the parking lot is full of cattle trucks and other vehicles that have already gotten off the road to escape the high winds and sheets of rain brought by the morning’s storm.
Jack, for his part, had been thwarted by an unexpected detour around road construction and had missed all the fun.
He takes a spot at the bar in the diner, orders a coffee and a cup of fruit salad, and looks at one of the televisions mounted in a corner of the room. A weather report is on. The television is muted, but beneath the lagging closed-captioning subtitles, Jack reads the text scrolling across the bottom of the screen: TORNADO WARNING ISSUED FOR THE FOLLOWING COUNTIES. . .
He doesn’t need to hear what the weather forecaster is saying. He watches a simulation of the storm crawl across the screen from left to right in repeating ten-second loops, showing its path across the state. Getting away from him.
He drinks his coffee, eats his fruit. When he’s done he pays and gets out of his seat.
Another man, sitting at the bar over a slice of pie, swivels around as he walks past.
“Watch out if you’re headin’ south. Gonna get rough out there.”
Jack pauses. He looks back at the TV, then looks at the man. He’s younger—maybe thirty-five, forty—with a beard and brown hair that needs a trim. Fairly big, even sitting. He must be at least Jack’s own height.
“Looks good down south. Storm’s heading east.”
The man flicks his eyes at the TV, too, but looks at it so briefly that the glance itself is clearly a dismissal, like the forecast is a party trick that has failed to impress him. “That front’s gonna break up, but somethin’s gonna develop about fifty miles south of here.” He smiles, small and assured. “Take my word for it.”
“I don’t know what your word is worth.”
“It’s worth anything you’ll stake on it.”
Jack laughs, incredulous. “That sounds like a bet.”
“It could be. Depends on where you’re goin’.”
“Where are you going?”
The man grins at him, tipping his head. “I’m goin’ where the storm’s goin’. I’m goin’ south.”
“Alright.” Jack thinks, What the hell, and rolls his shoulders. “I’m going south, too.”
The man looks pleased. He straightens his back. “Sounds like we have an opportunity for a wager, then.”
“Maybe so. What are the, ah, stakes of our bet? What’s on the table here?”
“Tank of gas?”
“…Fair enough.” Jack turns his wrist, checking his watch. “And when are we going?”
The man pulls a battered bifold wallet from his back pocket, picks out a couple of bills, lays them on the counter, and stands up. From the adjacent seat he takes a brown cowboy hat and flips it onto his head. “Right now.”
Jack is unsurprised to see that the battered 1980s Chevy truck with New Mexico plates he’d had to park beside for lack of other space belongs to the man with the cowboy hat. It’s spotted with rust, but the wheels look like they’re in good shape, and the windshield is in perfect condition. New headlights, even. A tarp is tied down over the truck bed. Jack glances surreptitiously through the passenger-side window as he circles around to his own truck and spots a shoe box full of cassettes, a pack of cigarettes lying on the dashboard, a bag of unshelled sunflower seeds… A cell phone charger held together with electrical tape dangles from the cigarette lighter.
“You heading somewhere specific?” he asks. “Can I get an address?”
“I’ll lead; you just follow.”
The man smiles at him across the top of the truck, then opens the driver’s side door and leans in to place his hat on the passenger’s seat. Jack clears his throat.
“How do, ah, how do I know you’re going to pay out on this bet after you lose? You could just drive off and waste my time.”
The man straightens up, cocking his head a bit. “So could you. You want collateral?”
Jack shrugs one of his shoulders. The man shuts his door with a hip check and starts to walk around the front of his truck. When he rounds the near side of it, Jack sees that the man is fiddling with his belt. He narrows his eyes.
“I like this buckle,” the man says. “Hate to lose it. You can return it when I collect on our wager, alright?”
The man holds out his hand, and Jack takes the buckle from him. It says BAMF. It’s heavier than he expected.
He says, “oh; thanks,” and the man nods and looks at him expectantly. He lingers there between their trucks, weight shifted casually onto one leg.
Jack hesitates. Then he swivels his wrist around and unbuckles his watch. It came from a pawn shop. Replaceable.
But the man seems satisfied. “I’ll keep it good and safe,” he promises. He tucks the watch into his pocket. Then he glances beyond Jack and studies his truck. “You’re okay with goin’ off road, yeah?”
There’s a hint of challenge in his voice.
“I try not to trespass, but.” Jack shrugs as though to say I am not above mischief.
The man grins. “Well, just try to keep up. Hate to have to leave you behind and have you think I’m throwin’ our bet because you can’t get over some potholes.”
“I’ll keep up,” Jack says, stolidly.
Jack lets the man pull out of the parking space first. Before he puts himself in reverse, he leans down for a moment, pretending to have dropped something, and reaches beneath his seat to touch the box tucked there. The box that holds a handgun and ammunition.
It’s a beautiful afternoon despite the earlier storm, everything bright and crisp the way it only gets after rain. The sky is almost entirely clear all the way to the western horizon, though the eastern sky is moody and threatening, off in the distance. That’s the storm he’s abandoning to prove to some misplaced cowboy that he doesn’t know better than the National Weather Service. Ahead of them, a few sickly grey clouds mar the southern sky. It’s not impressive. It’s not anything.
Jack cracks the window to let the smell of concrete and already-past rain into the truck. If this is a trap, it’s a stupid one. They’re in separate vehicles, in broad daylight. Lying about the weather in truck stops to lure someone to the middle of nowhere to murder them is such bad strategy that it’s comical to even consider.
But when they reach a long straight stretch of highway, Jack pokes his phone discreetly above the steering wheel and takes a photo of the man’s license plate, then emails it to himself. There. Evidence. It’d probably take a long time before anyone even began to investigate his murder, but he’s provided a useful clue.
Forty miles down the highway, the man signals a turn onto an adjourning county road. Jack glances at his GPS display as they turn onto it. The reduced speed limit gives him the opportunity to grab and unfold his copy of the state road map and find the appropriate intersection. Much of the map is covered with penned-in symbols and patches of his own handwriting, but this section is untouched. He’s been through this part of the state several times, but he’s never had reason to leave the highway around here before.
Jack lays the map open across his lap, following the Chevy around a wide, gradual bend. It’s quaintly semi-rural land, with trees growing all the way up to the edge of the ditches, sometimes punctured by intersections with other roads and private driveways. When someone passes them, coming from the other direction, the other driver lifts two fingers from the steering wheel to say “hello,” and Jack mimics the gesture. Ahead of him, the man with the cowboy hat hangs his arm out the window and begins to slap the side of his truck as though matching the beat of a song.
They go for some miles like that, the road winding languidly along. They pass someone taking a riding lawn mower to a section of the ditch, and a doe stepping delicately into the underbrush, her eyes big and bright when her head turns to look at them. And then they break out of the trees into an expanse of crop fields, and Jack breathes, “Holy shit.” He has to glance at the truck’s built-in compass to verify that they’re facing south again, because suddenly it looks like they’ve been transported all the way to the leading edge of the east-moving storm.
He hadn’t watched the sky as they’d driven down this road. The light had dimmed, but he’d considered it an effect of the tree cover. But now the few pitiful little clouds he’d seen in the southern sky have turned dark, and gathered upon themselves like the prow of an enormous ship bearing down upon the countryside. The space under the thunderhead is cast in shadow and streaked with the haze of heavy rain. As he looks up, the hulking mass of the clouds glows momentarily with internal lightning.
Jack flashes his high beams. They could drive straight on into the storm, but he wants to stop and—see it. Just look, while it’s all right in front of him.
Cowboy seems to understand. He raises the arm he’d draped out of the truck—I see you—then signals a right-hand turn. They slow to a crawl along the road until an option presents itself: a tractor path between two fields. The fields themselves are planted on a gradual slope, and they pick their way up the gentle incline until it levels off at the top. The Chevy slows further until it stops, and Jack parks behind it.
Jack hops out and walks forward without any thought, just staring at the sky. He doesn’t notice how close he’s gotten to Cowboy’s truck until the driver’s door nearly bumps him as the other man unfolds from the cab. They stand a couple feet apart, facing the same direction.
“Damn, would you look at that,” Jack breathes. “Can’t believe how fast it came on.”
“Pretty fast,” Cowboy says, mildly.
“Fuck, hold up a minute.”
Jack jogs back to his truck to grab his binoculars. When he looks back again, Cowboy has put his hat on and is lighting a cigarette.
“You think we’re gonna see any funnel clouds?” Jack calls, putting the binoculars to his face to study the storm’s oncoming edge. There’s just farmland between them and it, dotted with a few houses. A tornado out here might tear up some fields, but it’s not likely to hurt any people. Just about as good a spot as it gets.
“Expect we will.”
Jack glances over. The man is just leaning against his truck, arms folded, the cigarette hanging from his lips. A study of nonchalance. He’s watching the storm with a respectful coolness.
“You got binoculars?” Jack asks.
Cowboy’s eyes shift toward him. He shakes his head.
“Here.” Jack walks closer, the binoculars held out. The man gives him a long look before he nods, and smiles, and reaches out to accept the offering.
While the man fiddles with the binoculars, Jack makes himself busy checking his equipment. He doesn’t travel with much: a tripod, a good camera for recording video, a wind gauge, a few other things. It’s rare that he uses any of it, but he tries to keep everything in good condition should the want arise.
“Hey!” Cowboy calls. “’Bout to have our first touchdown.”
Jack’s head snaps up. The man’s arm is stretched out, pointing, and Jack follows the direction of the gesture with his eyes.
“Oh,” he says.
In the distance a dark tendril is reaching toward the ground. As it gets closer, a whirlpool of debris suddenly rises from the earth, like a grasping hand breaking out of the dirt. The funnel connects with it and becomes one continuous, twisting shape stretching between the thunderhead and the green blanket of farmland. Jack rises onto the tips of his toes, moved by a childish notion that becoming just a little taller will help him see better.
Suddenly the man with the cowboy hat is beside him, nudging his elbow.
“Here,” he says, and Jack takes the binoculars back from him.
The tornado doesn’t last long. Forty-five seconds after forming, it stutters and gives a sort of jump, breaking in the middle as its path forces it to hop a creek. It manages to travel for another quarter mile or so, the column undulating like an eel, before it wisps apart completely. Jack clucks his tongue and lowers the binoculars.
“Think there’ll be more?” he asks. A rhetorical question without real expectation of an answer.
The man squints at the clouds. “Yeah. In a bit.” Then he says, “Gonna get rained on.”
They’re not in the storm’s direct path; the wind will send the core of it skirting past them. They won’t be under the worst of it. But it feels like they’re in a downdraft zone, and Jack smells rain in the air. They’ll likely get hit.
He says, “Yep”—and then, “Oh” when he hears it come toward them, abruptly, the rains sweeping up the stormward side of their little hill. Jack sees the wall of rain coming on an instant before it hits them fully, pattering onto the fields and the dusty tractor path and their trucks. Jack’s stood out in rain ten times worse, but he pops the truck door open and says, “Get in; it’s unlocked,” even though the other man’s truck isn’t twenty feet away.
Cowboy bends his leg sideways and puts out his cigarette against the sole of his boot. Then he tucks the cigarette behind his ear and gets into the truck.
Jack puts the key into the ignition to run the battery so he can switch the windshield wipers on, allowing them to see momentarily clearer glimpses of the storm through the rain. He settles back and scrapes water from his face.
“So how’d you know it was going to be here?” he asks without preamble.
The man exhales through his nose and moves his feet around. “Oh, I dunno. Just felt it’d be around this spot.”
“Yeah. Don’t you ever get a feelin’ about something?”
“I get ‘feelings,’ sure. But not about storms coming out of nowhere, fifty miles away.”
“Well. It didn’t come outta nowhere.”
“It kind of did.”
“Just ‘cause you can’t see somethin’ doesn’t mean that it was nowhere.”
Jack blinks. Then he laughs. He shakes his head and puts his right hand out, arm turned at an awkward angle and elbow digging into his own side as he tries to offer a handshake to someone sitting directly next to him. “My name’s Jack.”
The man reaches across himself to complete the handshake. “‘Jack’ as in ‘Jack Morrison?’”
Jack laughs ruefully, shrugging in a you-got-me way. “My face precedes me, huh?”
There aren’t many storm chasers his age still running around, and none at all with his unmistakable scars.
The man looks a little bashful at that and takes off his hat in an apologetic way. “Well. I had a suspicion. Name’s Jesse McCree. Honored to meet you, sir.”
Jack snorts. “Oh, don’t start with that. I’m not your schoolteacher. You out here solo, Jesse McCree?”
“You run a YouTube channel or something?”
“Do I what?”
“You know.” He gestures vaguely with both hands. “Film things, put videos on the internet, tell people to subscribe?”
Jesse’s smiling, but his head is tipped to the side a bit, like he’s trying to figure out if he heard something right. “Naw, I just like to watch ‘em. No YouTube.”
“Alright. Well. We’re watching.” He squints through the windshield. Even with the wipers running full speed, visibility is limited. There’s no lightning, and the cloud cover is heavy enough to make the afternoon dim and grey. They could try to drive out of the rain, but there aren’t many other hills around to give them a vantage point, modest though theirs is, and they’d lose some time just driving. “You want to get closer? We could move.”
“This is a good spot. I like it here.”
“Yeah? Me, too.”
So they stay. The storm churns past them, and they sit in silence and watch it while the rain dashes itself against the windows, the wind picking up force until Jack feels the truck start to lean more heavily to one side. They hand the binoculars back and forth to one another every few minutes, taking turns scanning the area under the storm’s core.
During one of these exchanges, Jesse reaches out and taps the medal hanging from a fine chain wrapped around Jack’s rear-view mirror, sending it swinging. “Who’s this?”
“Huh? Oh. It’s Saint Sebastian. He, um. It’s a good luck charm.”
Jesse leans forward to peer at the medal. “The guy who got shot with arrows? You sure he’s lucky?”
“Well, he protects, uhh. Other people. I—like him.”
“Oh? He ever lend you a hand?”
“Dunno. How would I know if something bad didn’t happen to me?”
Jesse concedes the point with a murmur. Then his back straightens and he says, “Big one comin’ now.”
Jack grips the steering wheel to haul himself forward, staring hard into the storm.
Everything looks much the same as it has for the last half hour, choppy bits of the cloud shelf hooking momentarily toward the ground before the wind shears them off.
Then the tornado comes down, descending like the maw of an enormous animal. It’s farther away from them than the first one had been, the wind having pulled the bulk of the storm cell past their position, but even at a distance Jack can see that it’s much bigger than the first. As soon as the slender, tapered point of it touches down, it starts to bulk out until it’s a nearly uniform width from top to bottom, a good third of a mile across.
“Fuck,” Jack says, reaching for the door handle. Then he catches himself and turns toward Jesse. “Bag down by your foot, there’s ponchos. Grab me one?”
Jesse does, and Jack worms his way into it. Then he elbows the door open and steps into the storm.
It doesn’t do much to help him see better. It doesn’t put him meaningfully physically closer. But it feels right, to be out there. To be immersed, the wind and the rain surrounding his body, pushing him. And a moment later Jesse is out in it, too, in a matching poncho, the brim of his cowboy hat jutting out from the hood. He’s grinning, hands akimbo, watching the storm like it’s some old show-off friend.
“Looks like it means business,” Jack shouts over the wind, and Jesse nods.
He’d gotten out of the truck to look at the tornado, but suddenly just looking doesn’t feel like enough. He shifts from foot to foot, restlessness building in his legs. His contentment with sitting is gone. Like a hound he wants to run this prey into the ground.
“Ah… You want to chase it?”
Jesse grins wider.
“You got a phone?” Jack asks. “Give me your phone.”
Jesse fumbles a phone out from under his poncho and hands it over, and Jack turns, shielding it from the rain with his body as he sends a text message to himself with Jesse’s phone.
“Call me up,” he says, shoving the phone back into Jesse’s hands. “Let’s go.”
They reverse all the way back down the tractor path, and Jack takes the lead as they pull back onto the county road. He points the truck in the direction they’d originally been traveling and guns it. As he picks up speed he sees a call come through on his phone, resting in its dock, and accepts the connection.
“Howdy, Morrison. This is Eagle One.”
Jack laughs. “What, you’re Eagle One? I’m in front. I’m, I’m older.”
“Hey, you didn’t call dibs.”
“Dibs, what the fuck?”
“Dibs, man. Dibs!”
Jack shakes his head and rolls down the window, sticking his fist out of the truck to flip Jesse off. Jesse just laughs and honks twice.
The tree cover swallows them up again as they reach the end of the field, cutting off their view of much of the sky, as well as the road itself. Jack toggles his phone from the call screen to an overhead map display, searching for other roads ahead of them. If this road keeps traveling in the same direction, they’re just going to end up behind the tornado after it’s already passed. They’re going to need to take a turn to intercept it properly.
“You missed that one,” Jesse says as they fly past a little T junction.
“There was a mailbox on the corner,” Jack shoots back. “That was just going to lead us into someone’s front yard.”
Jesse ‘hmphs’ quietly. The phone picks up on other miscellaneous noises on his end: loose change rattling together, some kind of twangy music playing quietly in the background. Jack catches the snick of a lighter even over all the other sounds. When he glances into the rear-view mirror a moment later, he sees Jesse reach up to tap ash out of his window.
Then the road spills them out into more of the open farmland they’d seen from their little hilltop. The tornado is still on the ground, and Jack sees a spark of light as it rips through power lines. Jesse whistles softly.
An intersection appears at the top of Jack’s GPS screen and he says, “Gonna swing a left up here, watch out.”
He brakes barely enough to handle the turn, and they take the corner at an ill-advised speed, and then Jack jams his foot back down on the gas pedal, hard. Jesse’s truck falls behind for an instant and then surges forward, re-closing some of the distance between them. There’s no one else in front of them. They fly past two cars pulled over in the ditch, hazard lights blinking as the drivers stare out their windows, watching the tornado. One of them is holding up a cell phone.
“Figure they’re all right?” Jesse asks.
Jack checks his rear-view mirror again, watching the cars recede into the distance behind them. “Just looking, I think.”
Even from the road he can see the path the tornado has already cut: shattered trees, a wide bare-earth through fields. Bits of straw drift across the road from hay bales that have been ripped apart. The wind is intense, driving the rain sideways across his windshield and shouldering the truck across the road so that he has to fight the steering wheel to keep inside his lane. It’s lucky that there aren’t any towns in the tornado’s apparent path, but…
“Ah, shit,” he breathes. “Think it’s gonna hit that house?”
“Which? I don’t see a house.”
“Uh, yellow. On your two. Uh, steel building next to it—”
“Got it,” Jesse says. “Shit. Think it might.”
The farmhouse and a few outbuildings are nearly a mile off the main road. If the house were a different color he might’ve missed it entirely. There’s a double row of spruce trees between it and the tornado, and he and Jesse can’t do anything but watch as the tornado bears down, ripping through the windbreak like the trees are no more than lines of matchsticks. And then it comes between the house and Jack’s line of sight, and his breath catches.
“You think it hit?”
Jesse’s hushed voice says, “Maybe…”
“I’m going,” Jack says. “Keep following it if you want. I’m going. Shit—here’s—”
He wrenches the steering wheel, making an abrupt, skidding turn as a road comes suddenly into view beyond a tall hedge. It’s a dirt road, and Jack immediately hits a deep pothole so hard that part of the truck’s undercarriage scrapes the gravel. He bounces heavily in his seat, teeth jarring together.
“Fuck,” he grunts—and then Jesse’s headlights jump wildly across his mirrors as the other truck jostles over the pothole, too.
“Oof!” says Jesse. “Y’okay, baby?”
“Uh, yeah, just wasn’t expecting it.”
Jesse laughs quietly. “Was talkin’ to the truck, but if that’s what you like goin’ by, I’ll keep it in mind.”
“Oh.” Jack squeezes the steering wheel. “No, uh, Jack is, uh, good.”
“Suit yourself. Woo, got some debris here.”
There are tree branches lying in the road, one of them big enough to force Jack half into the ditch to be able to pass, and more are dropping out of the air. A roof shingle slaps onto the windshield and is pushed aside by the wipers. This road—which is really just a long driveway—is lined with cone-shaped cedar trees. They’re still standing intact, and they’re tall and dense enough that Jack can’t see anything but what’s directly in front of him. He has no idea whether the tornado is still on the ground at all.
They drive over more and more debris, and the rain abruptly stops. And then they emerge into the big farm yard around the house. On one side is the splintered windbreak and a big metal tractor barn with the roof half peeled off like the lid of a tin of sardines. In front of them the yellow farmhouse is still standing, absent most its shingles, half the siding, and a former covered entry.
Jack bops the truck horn several times as he swings along the edge of the yard and finds a relatively clear spot to park. Jesse pulls up behind him, and they both hop out into the mud. They glance at one another, then set off together toward the house.
They make it only a few yards before a man and two teenage boys come jogging out from around a corner of the house. All of them stop short, nearly piling into one another in the process.
“Hey!” Jack shouts, waving both arms over his head to show his hands are empty. “We were on the road and saw that thing come through. Anybody hurt?”
The man jerks his thumb at the tractor barn. “Less than a year old,” he growls.
“Oh. Sorry. Anybody hurt?” Jack asks again.
“Well, my wife’s trying to get the cat to come out from under the bed.”
Jack glances at Jesse. Jesse raises his eyebrows and shrugs. People sometimes enter a phase of calm nonchalance after they’ve suffered a shock. But these three don’t seem injured, and the house doesn’t look like it’s going to fall in on their heads tonight.
“Do you need any help?” he tries one more time.
The man eyes him for a second while the boys stare from either side. “No offense, but I don’t know you and I’m not letting you into the house.” Then he gives an apologetic sort of wave. “We’re okay. Already called the neighbors; they’re coming over.”
There’s no point in arguing. He raises and lowers his hands one more time, placating. “Alright, alright, alright. We won’t bother you. Glad you’re all safe. Take care now.”
He catches Jesse’s eye one more time as he turns around, and then they climb anticlimatically into their trucks. Jack pushes the hood of his poncho back and sighs. Then he puts the truck into gear, swings around in a tight circle, and starts to drive back down the long driveway.
His call with Jesse is still running. He can hear music playing softly in the other truck.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hey,” says Jesse.
They drive in momentary silence. Both of them have to take the ditch to allow another truck coming up the driveway to pass them. Jack exchanges a wave over the steering wheel with the other driver. Then he pulls up to the intersection with the main road and just idles there, his blinker going.
After a moment Jesse asks, “What do you want to do now?”
“I want to get a fucking drink,” he says, and turns out onto the road. “Come on, let’s get you your tank of gas.”
“So what do you do when you’re not out here?”
From the farm they drove until they found a gas station, where they topped off Jesse’s tank and solemnly exchanged the belt buckle and watch, and then they drove more until they found some place that looked like it would serve both hot food and alcohol. So here they are at a sleepy little diner with the same plastic laminate on both the tabletops and the floor.
Jesse takes a long swallow of beer and wipes his mouth with the side of his hand.
“Oh, you know. Work some. Get into trouble.”
Jack laughs. “Oh? What kind of trouble do you get into?”
Jesse looks at him, then drops his eyes lower, then looks slowly upward again.
Jack smiles politely and says hm. “What do you do for work, if you don’t mind my asking?”
Jesse shrugs. “Whatever needs doin’.” He goes for his beer again, and it seems like he’s not going to say anything else about it. Jack grunts and tilts his own bottle in a here’s to that gesture, but Jesse continues speaking: “Mostly help a buddy out with an auto shop. Pretty good work. Do some art sometimes.”
“Yeah. Shop’s attached to a scrap yard. Get some interestin’ things in. Sometimes I make stuff. Not much.”
“Make stuff—from the scrap?”
“Yeah.” Jesse lowers his chin slightly and glances up, almost shy. “Got an Instagram, if you wanna see.”
“Yeah,” he says, immediately. “I’d love to.”
Jesse nods, shifting to fish his phone from his back pocket. He squints at it for a moment, thumbing at the screen, then turns it around and slides it across the table. “That’s my best one.”
Jack frowns down at the phone, then picks it up to look more closely. For a moment he doesn’t understand what he’s looking at. Something rust-brown and jumbled. Then he tilts his head in just the right way and his brain recognizes the shapes he’s supposed to be seeing. It’s a horse. A hollow sculpture of a horse, lying on the floor with its head in a half-raised position. The horse is made of corroded rebar, so the contours of the its body look like a bold, messy pencil sketch with the practice lines still showing. There’s a sense of energy to the sculpture even though the horse is lying down, as though it’s about to surge to its feet or stretch out to snap its teeth.
“You made this?” Jack asks, too astonished to ask a more intelligent question.
Jesse nods, smiling a tiny sly smile. “Last year. You can swipe.”
“Swipe?” Jack makes a clumsy motion over the screen, and the picture shifts to another: still the horse, but now Jesse’s lying beside it on his back, shirtless, grinning, hands tucked under his head. He has barbell piercings through his nipples and a big dark tattoo on his left arm. The length of Jesse’s body is nearly identical to the horse’s, from head to the tip of its tail.
“You? Sell? You sold this?”
Jesse laughs through his nose, but there’s something pleased in his expression. “Naw, damn. I wish. She’s just collectin’ dust. Sold a couple little—” he gestures; “wind chime things. And a lamp. That’s about it.”
“Well, that—it’s—very good. You’re quite an artist.”
Jesse shrugs, looking down at his hands, but his smile spreads a little wider.
Jack asks, “Can I…?” He waggles the phone.
“Oh. Yeah. There’s a few other things.”
Jack swipes through another dozen or so photos. He sees pictures of Jesse next to sports cars and beautiful vintage models, some of them with ‘before-and-after’ shots for comparison, and more pieces of Jesse’s art: a scrap metal hermit crab, pieces of tin curled up into a bouquet of roses, a table lamp. There are also photos of Jesse outside. Selfies. Jesse in front of an enormous tornado rolling over flatlands, Jesse holding a piece of hail that fills most of his palm, Jesse under a night sky lit neon purple by multiple lightning strikes. Jack stops swiping when he gets to a photo of Jesse in front of a bathroom mirror with his shirt pulled up to his chest. One side of his stomach is viciously bruised in an angular pattern as though he’d been pressed by an enormous stamp. Jack winces sympathetically.
“Ouch,” he says, putting the phone down and sliding it across the table. “You get kicked?”
“Huh?” Jesse looks down at the phone, cocking his head, then grins wide. “Aw, no. Wildest fuckin’ thing. Got kinda close to this big tornado, and it threw a fuckin’ tire at me. Didn’t even see it comin’ ‘til I was down on my ass. See?”
Jesse swipes on the phone and tilts it up to show. There’s a second photo of Jesse in the same bathroom. This time he’s turned most of the way around, holding the phone over his shoulder. His pants are pulled down several inches, revealing big, shapeless bruise on his rump.
“I looked up the tire tread later. It was a Firestone,” he says, brightly.
Jesse turns the phone screen off when the waitress arrives with their food, refills their water, and asks if they want more beers—which they do.
Jack got meatloaf; Jesse has a chicken fried steak, with his mashed potatoes swapped out for French fries. They tap their beer bottles together.
“So is storm chasing an… art thing?” Jack asks, once he’s made a portion of his meatloaf disappear. “You do it for, for, for—inspiration?”
Jesse shrugs broadly, moving his fork and knife to emphasize the gesture. “I just think they’re sexy.”
Jack bursts into inadvertent laughter, nearly spitting water onto himself. He sets his water glass down carefully. “Let me guess: you saw Twister at an impressionable age?”
“Somethin’ like that.”
“Alright, so storms are, ah, sexy. And you just do this all on your own?”
“And you, what you did… You just… know what’s going to happen?”
“That’s incredible,” Jack says, earnestly. “How have I never heard of you before? I know most of the people who do, you know. This kind of thing.”
“Well. I keep to myself, mostly.”
“Yeah? But you talked to me.”
“You looked like a good…” Jesse shifts a fry into the corner of his mouth like a cigarette— “conversationalist.”
“Oh? Am I?”
Jesse‘s eyes flick down for a second, smiling indolently. “So far.”
“So far,” Jack echoes, splitting a steamed baby carrot in half with his fork. “I see. How long are you going to be out here?”
“As long as it’s interestin’. This is gonna be a long season.”
“You think so?”
Jesse nods, jabbing a puddle of ketchup with one of his fries.
“Well, that’s good news for me, I guess,” Jack says. “Your buddy isn’t going to need you back at the shop soon?”
“Naw, we’ve got a thing worked out.”
“Oh. Well that’s nice. You do this every year or what?”
“Last few years, yeah. Couldn’t travel much ‘til I finished parole.”
Jack pauses with the tines of his fork between his teeth.
“Not gonna rob, murder, or rape you,” Jesse says, a little savagely.
“I didn’t assume,” Jack manages.
There’s a beat of silence. Then Jesse relaxes slightly, his shoulders drooping. He puts three French fries into his mouth at once and chews rapidly.
“Alright,” he says.
“I’m sorry for— I didn’t mean to pry. You… I can mind my own business.”
“S’all right,” Jesse says. He goes on eating, eyes on his plate. “Some people just wanna act friendly ‘til they hear somethin’ they don’t like, and then they don’t want to talk anymore.”
Jack digests this for a moment, studying Jesse as he calmly cuts into his chicken fried steak. “So you wanted to test me.”
“Mm.” It’s a neutral noise. Not a confirmation, but also not a denial. “Figured you don’t spook easy, since you’re out doin’—” Jesse sweeps a hand around; “this. But since you’ve got a gun, so it’s good to… know.”
Jack’s eyebrows lift. “How’d you know I have a gun?”
Jesse meets his eyes, and his particular little grin comes back. “Didn’t. Do now.”
Jack guffaws shortly. Their waitress circles back around to offer them more refills. Jack declines another beer, asks for coffee—decaf, if it’s not too much trouble. Jesse only accepts more water.
“Can I ask you one more question?” he asks after they’ve been left alone again, tapping his spoon on the edge of the coffee cup. “It’s noninvasive—I think.”
“What does ‘BAMF’ mean?”
“Oh. Uhh.” Jesse shifts in his seat. “Bad… Bad at…” His eyes travel around the room. “…Bad At Making Friends.”
“Oh. Well, I don’t think that’s true. You’re interesting to talk to.”
Jesse’s eyes re-focus on him, his mouth slightly parted. He says simply, “Oh.”
Jack transfers empty packets of sugar and creamer onto his plate. “You done for the night, after this?”
“Probably, yeah. Won’t be able to catch up with anythin’ else tonight. You?”
“Yeah. Not supposed to drive at night anymore if I can help it. Where, ah— You going to stick around this area tomorrow, you think?”
“Naw. Gonna keep goin’ south. Feels like somethin’ big’s comin’ up.”
“That so? Well, there, ah… There’s a hotel about fifteen, twenty miles from here I’ve stayed at before. If you need a place to stay… I mean, I, I can recommend it as a good place to stay. That’s, ah, where I'm headed.”
Jesse hesitates for a moment, something passing over his face that Jack can’t decipher, then says, “We passed a campground a ways back. I figured I’d go see whether they’ve got any open spaces.”
“The ground’s already soaked,” Jack objects. A good tent might keep the water out, maybe, but it’d still be difficult to pitch over muddy ground.
“Truck’s dry,” Jesse says simply.
Jack sits back from the table, his eyebrows lifting. “Is that what you usually do?”
“Well. Gotta watch my money or I can’t do the whole season.”
“Ah. Well. Look—Jesse.” And Jesse does look at him, his expression alert. “I know how it sounds, strange old men talking about hotels and staying the night, but I’d feel better if I knew you were—ah—comfortable. I’d be happy to get us rooms. Of - of our own. If you’re fed up with me, we can go our separate ways tomorrow.”
“…I couldn’t possibly take you up on that.”
“I wouldn’t offer if it were a problem. It’s not a problem. Think of it as… extra pay-out on our bet. I never would have seen anything we saw today if it weren’t for you. I’m grateful. Truly.”
Jesse scrubs a hand over the top of his head, frowning at him. “Damn, man. If this is what you do when you lose a bet, I kinda feel like I should make sure no one else puts you up to one.”
Jack shrugs a shoulder, laughing. “Oh? You’ll come with then?”
“Well,” Jesse says. “Maybe.”
In the morning they get breakfast together. In the evening Jack experiences the most intense lightning storm he’s seen during the last decade.
And it all just - continues. They cross county lines, then state lines. Jesse leads, and he follows. Jack can’t explain it; it just works out. They always end up where they need to be.
On the sixth day of their partnership, the only hotel in town has only one room available.
“Don’t mind if you don’t,” Jesse says, and he doesn’t, and then that’s what becomes normal for them.
Jesse snores, but so does he, and, after all, it does save money.
“Hey, is your radio on?” Jesse asks as they’re skirting Oklahoma City, moving in to intercept a front that Jesse has “a good feelin’” about.
“Uh, no. Is there— Should it be?”
“Yeah. Tune into FM—actually—hold on, let me—here y’go.”
Suddenly the sound coming through Jack’s phone gets much louder: Jesse’s perpetually-staticky radio, turned up to maximum volume. Jack winces away from the noise, and then Jesse’s voice bursts in over the music: “—Jolene! Please don’t take him just because you can!”
Jack coughs out a laugh, too surprised to say anything, as Jesse sucks in a deep breath and then launches into a mournful account of Jolene’s personal qualities, his voice rising into a wail when he concludes with another plaintive “Jolene!”
Jack lowers his phone’s speaker volume slightly. Jesse is driving in front, leading the way as he usually does now—but even separated by fifty feet of highway and Jesse’s dusty rear window, he can see that Jesse is giving an inspired full-body performance. Jesse’s hands flash in and out of view through the window as he beats on the steering wheel. A car in the other lane passes them, and the other driver’s head momentarily swivels to stare.
“—But you don’t know what he means to me, Jolene!” Jesse howls, reaching up to smack the roof of his truck.
He says, “Hey, keep your hands on the wheel,” as the other truck starts to drift toward the center line. Jesse centers himself immediately, but the singing goes on, undiminished. Then Jesse’s hazard lights start blinking, and he honks the horn several times.
Jack looks both ways up and down the road: all empty, except for the car that has already passed. Then he calmly switches his own hazard lights on, too, and both of them go barreling along, blinking out-of-sync with the music and with each other, Jesse occasionally punctuating the song with additional beeps.
Jesse’s voice fades sorrowfully as the song comes to an end, and he presses on the horn for several seconds. But as soon as the song finishes it’s replaced by an ear-splittingly loud commercial that sends Jack jolting back in surprise. Jesse shouts “fuck off!” and all the noise diminishes abruptly as he dials the radio volume back to its usual barely-audible level.
Jack switches off his hazard lights, still laughing and still mystified. “That was, ah, quite an impassioned performance. You have some, ah, some personal experience with a Jolene?”
“Huh?” Jesse’s blinkers switch off, too. “Naw, man, it’s just a really good song.”
“You listen to a lot of Dolly Parton?”
“I listen to the right amount of Dolly Parton. What about you, huh? What do you listen to? Haven’t heard a single tune on your side yet.”
“Hm. Well, I like the Wu-Tang… Clan…,” he finishes weakly, because Jesse is already roaring with laughter and smacking his steering wheel again.
“You’re pullin’ my fuckin’ leg!”
“Ho-ly shit, Jack. Well, look, I don’t have none of that on tape, but I’ve got a special little treat here straight from The Boss: a humble little album called Born to Run. You might have heard of it.”
There are miscellaneous rattling noises from Jesse’s end, the sound of cassette tapes being shuffled around. “Alright, now are you ready for this?”
“Do I have a choice?”
"About this? Not at all!"
"I see. Might as well get it over with, then."
"That's the spirit," says Jesse, as a piano begins to play through the strangled speakers of a truck fifty feet away.
Jack drinks canned coffee and Spicy Hot V8. Jesse goes for Redbull and shots of 5-Hour Energy. He’s never met a gas station hot dog he wouldn’t eat.
Jesse remembers backwater roads and song lyrics and the name of every person he’s ever met, but he forgets how to look after himself. Every other day he forgets to take his clothes into the bathroom and has to slink out after his shower with a towel around his waist to collect them. He forgets things in Jack’s truck when they sometimes drive to dinner together after checking into that day’s hotel.
Jesse can tell where a storm will be and how far and fast they’ll have to drive to catch it, but he seems unaware of the space around himself. Jesse reaches for doors and diner menus at the same time he does, jostles their knees together under cafe tables, stands directly shoulder-to-shoulder with him when they stop at the side of the road to share binoculars and consult Jack’s collection of road atlases. He jangles when he walks, and he smells like tobacco smoke, and he laughs easily and often. When they pull over to help cars stalled beside highways with flat tires and empty gas tanks, Jesse’s the one who puts people at ease.
Jack’s never traveled with a better person.
“Uh-oh,” Jesse says. “We might, uh. Shit.”
Ahead of him, Jesse’s brake lights glow as the truck rolls to a gradual stop. Jack doesn’t need to ask what the problem is.
Beyond the front of Jesse’s truck, water is rushing across a thirty-foot span of the road. They’ve been surrounded by water on both sides for a couple miles now, and here is the place where the water is going from one side of the road to the other. Days of heavy rain have swelled the small local river well beyond the level of its original banks, flooding out the already water-logged fields. The road they’re traveling is above the water level, looking like a long, low pier extending across the middle of a lake. The water flowing across it is fast-moving and opaque, the color of weak coffee with milk.
Jack parks on the road behind Jesse. “How deep do you figure it is?”
Jesse gives a little hum. “Could be a couple inches, could be a couple feet. Hard to say.”
The water seems to be flowing over a natural dip in the road, but there’s no way to gauge the exact depth. Even if the original dip was only a couple inches, the water might have peeled up the road surface and gouged a deeper channel.
“Think we should try it?” he asks, hauling an atlas into his lap and zooming out on his phone’s GPS display. This is the best, most direct road to get where they’re going. Backtracking to find another route is going to cost them time that they barely have to spare. And any other road they find might also be washed out.
Jesse’s truck sits higher than his; he has a better chance of making it across. He could test the depth of the water.
“Maybe… Hm. I’ve got a tow cable we could hook up. I go first, you pull me back if it gets bad. If I make it, I pull you across.”
Jack frowns. It’s dangerous…
“Let’s try it.”
“Alright. Lemme grab— Oh, we’ve got a friend.”
A little silver Pontiac G6 is coming toward them from the opposite side. It pulls to a stop on the other side of the water and idles there.
The Pontiac doesn’t move. Neither do they.
“C’mon, get outta here,” Jesse mutters under his breath. It’ll set a bad example if they try to cross the water now; the other driver might try to do the same thing. Even if they cross successfully, it could still be dangerous for a smaller vehicle.
Jesse rolls down his window and sticks his arm out, jerking his hand back and forth. Turn around, turn around.
There’s a short pause, and then the Pontiac starts to pull forward into the water.
“Oh, no, no,” Jack says as the same time as Jesse’s, “Oh, what the Hell?”
Jesse honks his horn repeatedly, but within seconds the car is in water as high as its front bumper. And then, as soon as the the Pontiac has gone far enough for its rear wheels to be half submerged, the water takes it. The car bobs up as though some force has heaved it up from below, and it starts to slide sideways toward the flooded field.
Jack throws his door open and leaps out of the truck. His feet hit the road at the same instant as Jesse’s. They rush forward, and Jesse charges into the water. He gets ankle-deep before Jack grabs his arm and shoulder, gripping his straining body to hold him back.
The car sinks lower as it reaches the edge of the road itself and tips into the watery ditch. The drive has opened his door a few inches, but the water’s pushing directly against it, creating resistant that the driver cannot—or is afraid to—fight against. Then the car starts to turn, the nose swinging away from them until it’s perpendicular to the road, pointing toward the field. It’s half submerged, and the water, now pushing against it from behind, catches the partially-open door and forces it to open wide. The driver cranes out sideways, looking wildly back at them.
“Wait, wait!” Jack shouts, but by the time he realizes what’s going to happen, the driver has already plunged out of the car, crying out as he’s immediately swept over and knocked down. He disappears entirely but resurfaces an instant later in almost the same spot, clinging to the car door. By some miracle the car itself has stopped drifting away.
When the man falls, Jesse cries out, too, and pulls away so hard that Jack loses his grip. Jesse wades calf deep into the water.
Jack grabs him again and hauls him back with such force that Jesse stumbles and bumps into him, sending them both staggering a few steps onto the road.
“Do not! Move!” Jack shouts. Then he lets Jesse go and races to the back of his truck. “How long is your tow cable?”
“Thir… thirty feet!”
Jack bites the inside of his lip, glancing toward the field as he tears through one of his equipment boxes. The car must be almost sixty feet away. They might come up short.
“Grab your cable, hook it to your truck,” he says, leaping back onto the road. He bounds back around to the side of Jesse’s truck, wrapping one end of his own nylon tow strap around his waist and clipping it in place. Jesse has already thrown back the tarp from the back of his truck and is rummaging noisily around. When he glances over, his eyes widen.
“No way, Jack. No way!”
“It’s not deep, just moving fast,” he says, as much for his own reassurance as Jesse’s. “Just need something to keep from going too far.”
Jesse takes a sudden step toward him, like he intends to grab him, and Jack sidles back.
“Jack, let me do it. I’ll do it.”
“I’ve done this before.” Which is a stretch to say, but—
“Stay here and do what I say!” Jack roars, bringing out a voice he hasn’t used in a long, long time, and Jesse’s head jerks back like he’s been spat on. Jack steps forward again and claps him on the arm, softening his tone: “Hook the cable up, and then back the truck as close to the ditch as you can get it. Don’t—do not come into the water. Everything’s going to be okay. Okay, Jesse?”
Jesse doesn’t answer. He takes a deep, strained breath.
“Okay, Jesse? I need you to answer me, Jesse.”
“Okay,” Jesse chokes.
He waits just long enough for Jesse to attach the second strap to his truck, and then he buckles both of the straps together and runs into the ditch.
The water’s not cold, but it’s swift, and the embankment is soft and slippery. As he reaches the bottom his heels slide unexpectedly in the mud and the water simply takes his feet out from under him. He lurches over backwards, falls underwater, and feels himself be swept several feet forward before he catches his footing and manages to stand again. He snorts and spits, wiping muddy water from his face, and then looks back. Jesse is dancing anxiously from foot to foot on the edge of the road, water lapping at his boots.
“Stay back, stay back, stay back!” Jack shouts, waving an arm overhead. Then he fixes his attention on the car again.
The driver is still hanging onto the door, but he’s sunk low in the water, as though he’s being dragged down. Closing the distance between them takes little time; the water simply pushes Jack forward, encouraging him away from the road. The ground rises again slightly on the other side of the ditch, but the water still comes above his waist.
“Hey!” he calls as he comes up to the car, angling himself to let the water carry him to the rear bumper and then feeling his way around to the driver’s side. The tow strap pulls tight around his stomach just as he reaches the open door. Thank God it reached all the way. He looks for an instant over his shoulder and sees that Jesse has pulled the truck around so that it’s backed as close to the edge of the road as possible, the tow strap stretching taut from it.
He puts a hand on the driver’s shoulder, squeezing gently. “Hey, can you grab onto me?”
The man shakes his head. His face is drained of color. He avoids Jack’s eyes as though afraid to look at him.
“I can pull us back,” Jack says. “I won’t let you go. I got you; see?” He shifts, gripping the man around his chest, under his arms. “It’s okay; just let go.”
The man shakes his head again. “I’m stuck.”
“I can’t move. I’m stuck.”
“What? Where? What are you stuck on?”
“My foot; my foot’s stuck.”
“Okay. Okay. Okay, I’m—don’t panic, I’m going to grab your foot. Don’t let go of the door yet.”
He raises an arm above his head, thumb up, signaling to Jesse. Then he takes a long breath and dunks himself underwater.
He’s blind down there, but he finds one of the man’s legs. The man flinches and kicks, but Jack gives him a reassuring pat, and he goes still again. Jack grips his way down the man’s leg hand over hand, and then something stabs into his thumb. He jerks back, thumb stinging with pain, but reaches out again with greater care.
It’s barbed wire. The driver’s foot has come down through a submerged barbed wire fence and is somehow caught in it. He wonders if the underside of the car is wedged against one of the posts, which has kept it from being pushed farther from the road. He feels around delicately, but he encounters a confusing jumble of wire, and each time he tugs experimentally on the man’s leg, he feels something snag and resist the movement. It feels like the man’s loose shoelaces have gotten tangled up.
He bobs up to the surface, sucking in a breath. “Don’t let go yet,” he repeats.
He reaches into his pocket, pulls out his pocket knife, and dives again.
He finds the driver’s shoe, lines the knife blade carefully against the eyelets, and slices through each lace. Then he loosens the shoe as much as possible, grips the man’s ankle, and pulls. To his own astonishment, it works: the man’s foot lifts out of the shoe and comes all the way free, clearing the barbed wire fence.
Jack stands, gasping for air—and then weight slams into him, and he falls over backward into the water. His mind goes blank for an instant, not comprehending what’s happening. There’s something heavy on top of him. He’s being pushed and pulled. Then he realizes, oh. It’s the driver. The driver has leapt onto him. Even though he’d been above water, he’d reacted like a drowner and mindlessly jumped onto the closest thing to him after letting go of the door.
Jack goes limp, not fighting it. His back squishes down onto the mud. He feels the tow strap tighten around his waist as the water tries to drag his unresisting body along. But the lack of support sends the other man plunging into the water, too, which triggers his instincts to let go and struggle for the surface. As soon as the weight lifts from his body, Jack braces his feet in the mud and pops to the surface like a cork.
He reaches out blindly, not sparing any time to wipe his eyes, and grips reflexively as soon as his hands encounter another body. He twists his fingers into fabric and hauls backward, yanking the other man with him by force. He gets two blind, painstaking steps toward the road before the driver grapples him again. This time he ends up with an arm wrapped around his neck, pressing into his throat. He chokes. He keeps walking.
But since the man is holding onto him, not the other way around, he can spare a hand to scrape the muddy water off his face so he can open his eyes. At the same moment, the tow strap tightens again around his stomach, pulling at his body.
Ahead of him, Jesse is driving slowly up the road, leaning out of the open door to look back at them as he hauls them against the current.
Jack fights foot by foot against the water, grunting for breath. He doesn’t talk to the other man to calm him down. He just walks. The distance seems impossible; too far to go like this. If he falls he might lose the other man entirely. If he passes out before he falls, he might inhale water and drown himself. And Jesse would run in after him, of course, maybe get himself drowned, too—
And then his feet are sliding for traction on the mud of the ditch embankment, the tow strap squeezing the air out of him, and he and the driver pitch suddenly forward onto the road, falling onto their knees beside one another.
Jack heaves for air. Spots bloom and fade in front of his eyes. Then Jesse is there, tugging him back to his feet. “Jack! Are you okay? Jack!”
Jack stumbles against him, catching himself with a hand on Jesse’s chest.
“I think I lost a contact…”
“I’m good, I’m good,” he rasps, pulling away. “Help me with him.”
Together they get the driver standing between them and shuffle up to Jack’s truck, where they all lean heavily against the side.
“Call an ambulance,” he says, taking his phone from the dock and pushing it into Jesse’s hands.
He blunders through a shaky first-aid routine for the driver while Jesse paces circles around the truck, talking with the emergency dispatcher. The driver seems largely uninjured, aside from being shaken, and by the time Jesse ends the phone call, Jack has given him water, an over-sized change of clothes, and a thermal blanket from his emergency kit. He’s also changed his own clothes. They’re both sitting in the truck, wearing socks without shoes. He’d lost one of his own shoes without noticing. It seemed like a lot of work to put on another pair.
He’d discovered a ring of raw, scraped skin around his waist, like rope burn, where the friction from the tow strap had rubbed his own shirt into his skin until it peeled. He’ll have bruises later. His thumb isn’t bleeding, but there’s a little red puncture near the tip, and it aches with occasional throbs of pain.
“It’s gonna take awhile before the ambulance gets here,” Jesse reports, standing beside the open truck door. His face is pinched and frustrated. “They’re doin’ rescues all over the place. Half the county’s flooded out. Said we could wait here ‘til someone comes or drive in to the closest hospital.”
Jack exchanges a look with the driver—Jackson, that’s his name; they’d shared a little chuckle about that—and then buckles his seat belt. “Let’s drive.” He jerks his head sideways to indicate Jackson. “He should ride with you.”
Jesse doesn’t have heating or air conditioning in his truck, but he’s less likely to drive into the ditch because of poor vision or an adrenaline crash.
In weary silence they backtrack their way along the road until they find a town big enough to have its own hospital. Jack is up-to-date on his tetanus shot, but they look him over and make him take antibiotics to wipe out anything to which the dirty water might have exposed him. He’s fine, he says over and over; he’s just tired. He’s just tired.
Jackson has to wait in town until he can arrange for transportation. He’s from out of state; he doesn’t have family or friends to pick him up. His wallet was in that car; the cards might be recoverable, but for now he has nothing on hand. His phone, tucked into his back pocket, is plainly dead.
They drive him to the nearest motel. Jack pays for his room, gives him all the cash that happens to be in his wallet. Jackson insists on exchanging email addresses, swears that he’ll pay it back. Jack shrugs, says okay and sure, and thinks fuck no.
Staying in town is their best option, too. It’ll take time to find another route; they’re both jittery and exhausted. Jack hasn’t managed to put on shoes yet.
They get a second room, lug their bags inside. Then he stands stupidly in the shower, unmoving, watching cloudy water sluice away until it runs clear.
“Gonna lie down for five minutes,” he mumbles, sitting on the bed afterward while Jesse lingers in the bathroom doorway and squints watchfully at him. “Just rest my eyes.”
“Wanna find something to eat in a few?”
He plummets elegantly onto the pillow.
When he opens them again, the light in the room is entirely different: not a heavy afternoon glow but morning brightness, like the sun traveled backwards and rewound the entire day with it. He’s lying under blankets now.
On the other bed Jesse is lying on his side, asleep. One of his forearms is tucked between his head and the pillow. His hair is draped across his eyes. He’s in the bed closer to the window, backlit, the blankets gradually rising and falling as he breathes slow and deep. His outline is bright and gold.
Jack rolls out of bed. He stands there for awhile. Then he slaps his own face lightly, once on each side.
In silence he takes Jesse’s lighter and one of Jesse’s cigarettes from the beside the outdated television set and walks through the door.
Their room opens directly onto a little parking lot, with scenic views of the back of a Dairy Queen with a drive-thru menu board. The sun is coming up, and on a power line a bird is singing.
There’s no one in the parking lot. He folds himself onto the curb, and lights Jesse’s cigarette, and breathes in deep.
Jesse was seventeen when he was tried in court as an adult. He went to prison with older men. He had no visitors; he did not receive letters. No one picked him up when he was released with just the clothes on his back.
But he’d received a ‘light’ sentence, served only the minimum time before he came up for parole.
Now he has a truck, owned free and clear. He’s had the same job for a few years. Sometimes he makes art.
He chases storms.
Things worked out. He’s lucky.
Lucky like Jack is lucky, with the gouges across his face and the fine tremor in his hands. Hey, at least I’m alive.
In South Dakota they chase a supercell so far and so long that they lose all their daylight. They’re out in the sticks, and Jack reluctantly admits that, even with Jesse’s truck right in front of him, he can’t see well enough in the dark to keep going. So they pull off at a little roadside park with a couple fire pits and a cramped, crumbling concrete outhouse building. It’s not an official campsite, but the roads are nearly empty, and it’s their best option if they don’t want to drive to the nearest town, forty miles down the road, at twenty-five miles an hour.
In the illumination from their headlights Jack puts up the tent that his chiropractor has advised him to use as little as possible if he wants to keep having a functional back. Jesse does the same, though his tent isn’t much more than a lean-to. It’s a warm night, and rather humid; Jack layers all his bedding and just-worn clothes over the bottom of the tent, leaving himself uncovered, and stretches out in his underwear.
Jesse says, “Today was good.”
He sounds very close. They’re only a few feet from each other. It’s so dark with their headlights and flashlights switched off that Jack wouldn’t be able to see Jesse even if they were in the same tent. It’s impossible to tell that there’s anything separating them.
“It was. It was really good.”
The night is full of crickets, but he still hears the sound of Jesse’s lighter. He looks automatically toward the sound, but of course he sees nothing through the tent wall. His tent is upwind of Jesse’s, but the smell doesn’t bother him. After a few minutes he hears Jesse shift around, and dirt being disturbed, like Jesse is putting out the cigarette before lying down.
Then Jesse’s voice says, “Hey, can I ask you somethin’?”
“Somethin’ I wanted to ask, back on the day we met.” He hears the faint wet sound of Jesse’s lips unsticking from one another as he opens his mouth again to continue speaking: “What do you do this for?”
“Hm. Therapy, I guess.”
Jesse doesn’t answer. The pause endures to the point of discomfort. Then: “Does it work?”
“I think so. Or I wouldn’t be here.”
“Mm. Makes sense.”
“—That I need therapy?”
Jesse snorts. “That it works.” His body audibly shifts again. “Most of the time, it feels like… there’s somethin’ buildin’ up in me. Like a scream. And it just… pushes on everything. Takes up all that space. But when there’s a storm, it comes out. You know? Just— like the pressure goes away. Like the scream just comes out through the storm.”
“Yeah,” he says, with barely a waver in his voice. “Like that.”
It goes quiet again, the kind of quiet like they’re the only two people on earth. Like everything has gone away, or never existed at all.
Then a car comes down the road, slowing slightly as it passes like the driver is questioning whether to stop and investigate, before it speeds up again and fades into the distance.
“You think you’ll keep doin’ it?” Jesse asks, after awhile.
“Suppose so. I like it. What else would I do? You, ah… Are you asking because you’re getting sick of it?”
“No fuckin’ way. Already lookin’ forward to next year.”
“Oh?” he says, but Jesse just makes an indecipherable noise.
The quiet comes back. It’s hard to stay alert when there’s nothing to look at and nothing to listen to but the crickets. There’s no difference between his eyes being open or shut. He could fall asleep without even closing his eyes. Then from the darkness Jesse’s voice says: “How did you find out? That this is what works? For… therapy?”
“Ah.” Jack closes his eyes for a moment, needlessly. “It’s not an exciting story.”
“Well. You could make somethin’ up. I wouldn’t know.”
“I think you would. I’m not that good at making up stories. Hm. Well.” He laces his fingers together over his stomach, staring blindly upward. “I guess I found out twice. I spent a couple weeks over the summer with a, a friend in Nebraska. Must’ve been about seventeen. The last day I was there, a storm came through. The house was up on a little hill, had these big south-facing windows in the den. We could see it coming, getting black outside…”
He shifts his hands off his stomach and puts them at his sides.
“We went outside to watch. It got so dark, we didn’t really even see the tornado come down. But we heard it. Must’ve been almost right at the bottom of the hill. Sounded like a freight train, felt like it was pulling the air out of my lungs. It was like we’d heard raccoons getting into the trash and gone outside to chase them away and found a tiger in the bushes, instead.”
Jesse laughs quietly, and Jack smiles at the sound.
“I didn’t really even get a good look, but it was like I met God. I finally understood how it was possible to love and fear God at the same time. And I wanted to have that feeling again.”
“So you’re chasin’ God, huh?”
“I don’t know. Not anymore.” Jack drags a hand down his face, breathing slowly in and out. “I was in Nebraska because I thought I might go to Creighton. But I enlisted instead.
“I, ah. I had a hard time afterward. Couldn’t… handle loud noises, things like that. Didn’t want to be around anyone, didn’t want to do anything. Finally decided I… couldn’t do it anymore. So one day a storm came through, and I drove out in it and sat in my car. Didn’t want the neighbors to hear the, ah, the noise. But it was… it was beautiful, that storm. Smelled like the ground and sky were waking up. Felt all the thunder in my chest. I just wanted to watch it for awhile. My last chance, you know? And by the time it was done I didn’t want to do what I’d gone out to do. So I went home. And… here I am.”
In a low voice Jesse says, “…Never heard you say so much before.”
Jack laughs. “Sorry. Dumped a lot on you.”
“No, no. I asked. That was, ah... Thanks. For talkin' to me.”
“I have an actual therapist, by the way. I don’t just leave it all up to the whims of weather patterns. Used to take meds, but we’re testing how I do without them.”
“Yeah? You… doin’ okay?”
“Honestly?” Jack says. “Never been better.”
“Have you been down to the carnival yet?”
“Carnival?” Jack asks, tucking his wallet into his back pocket.
The hotel receptionist nods, pointing at the wall as though Jack might be able to see what’s out there if he just knows which way to look. “It’s downtown,” she says helpfully, sounding surprised that he could have missed it.
“Haven’t been downtown yet,” he admits. They’d stopped at the edge of town at the first place they’d seen. “Thanks for the tip.”
Jesse’s leaning against his truck in the parking lot, sedately smoking a cigarette. He smiles a bit when Jack comes outside.
“Want to go to a carnival?” he asks, and Jesse immediately perks, standing up straight.
“Oh, Hell yeah.”
They end up walking the rest of the way into town, the sluggish evening warmth cut by a pleasant northern breeze. ‘Downtown’ itself consists of four short blocks of Main Street with temporary barricades at either end, the carnival tucked between the little stretch of two-story early twentieth-century buildings. The main entry leads them into a section of the carnival full of game booths and food stands, with a brightly-lit ticket counter at the center. Beyond that section there are rides, and screaming.
“How many tickets should we get?” Jesse asks eagerly.
“Oh. I figured we were just going to look.”
“But there’s rides.”
Jack looks around them. “Rides for ten year olds.”
The street is full of school-age children with their parents. There are some teenagers roving without adult supervision, but most seem relatively young. Jesse scoffs at him.
“Well, let’s just see what we find. I’m going to get us some tickets.”
So they drift through the carnival, Jesse with a long spool of of tickets draped around his neck. They get corn dogs with squiggles of mustard and eat slowly as they wander up the street. There’s an inflatable castle shuddering like a bowl of jello as kids ricochet inside, and a sedately-turning ferris wheel, and a very tiny roller coaster for very tiny children. They pass a ride that’s shaped like an octopus with rotating seats at the end of each arm, which rise and fall as they revolve around the center. Discordant pieces of music fade in and out of range as they pass each ride. There’s some kind of enormous, bumpy slide at the end of the street, down which people go speeding on cloth mats, and a ride with cages attached to the bottom of two parallel pendulum arms that swing back and forth in counterpoint to each other, their arcs swinging wider and wider until they make several complete loops. There’s a lot of screaming from that one.
Of course it’s the one Jesse wants to try.
“You sure you want to do that after eating?” Jack asks him.
“Well, hey, there’s no joy without risk.”
Jack politely declines the invitation to join, and Jesse leaves him in charge of the other tickets while he gets in line and is subsequently loaded into the ride opposite a pair of teenagers.
Jesse ends up helping one of them over to a trash can when they’re let off the ride, and stands there for awhile fanning them with his hat. Eventually he parts from them with a wave. Then he wants to get something else to eat.
Jesse orders a lemonade and a piping-hot elephant ear drizzled with chocolate sauce, from which Jack tears occasional pieces as they watch balloon animals being made.
“Can’t think of the last time I did something like this,” he says, licking powdered sugar and grease from his thumb. “Used to go to the state fair with Vincent, but…”
“Yeah? What was your favorite part of the fair?”
“Dunno; I liked a lot of things. There were some interesting competitions. You know, livestock judging, things like that. Liked to look at the 4-H entries.”
“You ever compete? Win some ribbons?”
“Well, as a kid, sure. Never got really serious about it.”
“Mm. So who was the prizewinner?”
“Uh, Vincent never did 4-H…”
“No, man. The prizewinner.” Jesse mimics some kind of throwing motion. “I mean games. Which of you two won the prizes to woo your fella?”
Jack laughs, shaking his head. “Guess that was me.”
“Vincent never won you a great big stuffed teddy bear?”
“No, I don’t think so. No.”
“Well, we’ve gotta fix that for you.”
Jesse dusts his hands together, then takes him by the shoulder and steers him right back into the game area. They go past ring toss booths, some kind of fishing game with magnets on the end of the lines, a strongman game with a strike pad at the base of a tall pole... He nods his head sideways at that one.
“How about that?”
“Nope,” Jesse says, barely sparing it a glance.
The booth he chooses is a target-shooting game, lined high with big stuffed toys.
“Now, which of these does your heart desire?”
There’s a small line ahead of them, and Jack takes the opportunity to stand back and look the prizes over. There are no great big stuffed teddy bears.
“I don’t even know what most of these are. What’s that?”
“Oh, that’s a Minion.” Jesse points to the other side of the booth. “And that’s an Angry Bird.”
“It does seem to be.” He frowns doubtfully at the walls of prizes. To stall, he asks, “What if you can’t get the one I want?”
“Oh, don’t you worry about that.”
Jack still hasn’t chosen a prize by the time their turn at the booth comes up. Jesse exchanges a portion of his tickets for a scratched-up old toy rifle. He lifts it to his shoulder and sights ahead with a serious expression, like this is something that matters. He nods when he’s ready, and the attendant starts the game running with a clanging burst of noise. Tiers of colored targets start to scroll along the back wall of the both, running in alternating directions at different speeds. There are alarmed-looking little human cutouts mingled between them.
Jesse hits a target almost immediately, flipping it backward. Jack takes a step back, blinking several times involuntarily. The rifle makes a sound unlike a real gun, and the repeating pop, pop has been a regular part of the background noise, but now sweat prickles at Jack’s skin along his spine and under his arms.
“Uh,” he says, knowing that now is a bad time to interrupt, “I think I’m going to get a, a lemonade.” He glances again at the prizes, but their bodies blur meaninglessly into one another. “Surprise me with something.”
“Don’t sneak onto any rides without me,” Jesse says, looking at him as he answers—and hits another target.
He ends up with a cherry snow cone, and sits on the curb in the quietest section of the carnival he can find to eat it. He’s near a generator trailer, its low steady rumble blanketing some of the music and shouting under white noise. The air smells like diesel and artificial butter and cherry flavoring.
Jesse finds him there as he’s dumping leftover diluted syrup down the storm drain.
“There you are. Here; got you this.”
Jesse holds an enormous torso-sized stuffed animal toward him, and Jack stands up to accept it with amused curiosity.
“Ah, a raccoon. A very… rustic choice.”
Jesse snorts and smacks his shoulder playfully. “What’re you talkin’ about, raccoon? It’s a dog.”
Jack looks skeptically at the animal. He holds it out at arm’s length to study it better. “Maybe some kind of bear.”
Jesse’s brow furrows, his expression both uncertain and hopeful.
Jack tucks the stuffed toy under his arm, giving Jesse a wide smile. “I’ve never had… one of these before. Thank you, Jesse. It really… means a lot to me.”
Jesse looks pleased, his chest swelling, but he shrugs his shoulders and says, “It’s no big deal.”
“Well, now that this void in my life has been filled, I think I might… might head back. Get some rest. You go ahead and stay as long as you want. Enjoy the night.”
“Aw, c’mon. You can’t go to a carnival and not go on a single ride.”
“I think I can.”
“Well, what about me? I wanna go on the ferris wheel. Can’t go on a ferris wheel alone. That’s just sad.”
Unable to withstand such compelling arguments, they join the line for the ferris wheel.
They settle into one of the passenger cars with the stuffed animal between them, it being too large to sit on Jack’s lap without blocking his view. Jesse rests an arm on it, compressing its body into further ambiguity.
“You ever used to get in these and rock ‘em back and forth?” Jesse asks as they begin their slow backward ascent, the wheel creaking around them.
“No,” he lies. “Don’t try it.”
It’s not a big ferris wheel, not like some of the ones he’s seen installed at city waterfronts, but even a few stories of height have a captivating transformative effect on the environment. People shrink down to distinguishable but miniaturized versions of themselves, like figurines from model villages, as they rise over the downtown rooftops. They get a lofty view of the rest of the carnival, bright and loud and animated under them. There’s something pleasing about the artificiality of it.
“Ah,” Jesse says. “Look at the stars.”
Even with the carnival glowing at full force, there’s little enough light pollution for miles around them that the stars are only barely dimmed, and the sky is thick with them. There’s no moon out to distract from them. To the west there’s a dark, empty void low in the sky, and as Jack stares at that blank space, an arc of lighting high in the atmosphere briefly illuminates the distant storm clouds gathered at the horizon. Clouds that they might be chasing come morning.
“Pretty up here,” he murmurs, and Jesse hums a wordless agreement.
They go around a couple more rotations, not saying anything. A comfortable silence, like the ones that sometimes happen on the road when they’re just covering ground without much to see or think about, within sight of one another but not sharing the same space. It’s easy to talk around Jesse, and easy to be quiet around him. He never seems to mind one way or the other.
“Hope we get stuck at the top when they let someone off,” Jesse says—and a moment later that’s exactly what happens. They’re paused at the very top of the wheel to exchange riders when a little boy starts crying in panic and doesn’t want to get into the passenger car, leaving the ride operator to figure out what to do. They both lean over to look, but there’s no sense of urgency. They lean back again to wait out the delay.
Jack stretches out his arms and legs, looking around. “If we get the chance, we should - we should try to go to one of the state fairs. If it works out that way. I mean, it might not be possible, but…”
Jesse looks at him with his head cocked, smiling balmily. “It’s possible if we want it to be.”
“…I guess it is,” Jack says. “Yeah, I guess it is.”
A moment later the ferris wheel shivers and begins to move again. And a few minutes later they, too, are unloaded back onto the ground.
“That was nice,” Jack admits. “Think I’m gonna call it a night now. Thanks again for the…” He gently shakes the stuffed toy up and down. “This.”
“What, no more rides? That didn’t whet your appetite?”
“It did not.”
“Let me walk you to the road, at least.”
There’s no possible way to get lost between the middle of the carnival and the main entrance, but Jack shrugs and says, “Alright.”
Jesse waves to the shooting booth operator as they pass.
Next to the ticket booth is another crying child, head down, sniffing in the choked, restrained manner of someone who does not want to be caught crying. A woman crouches in front of him, holding one of his hands.
“I just can’t get that many, sweetheart,” she whispers. “Which one is your favorite? Want to walk around and look? We can get tickets for one ride.”
The boy nods but continues to sniffle, his head hanging down. The woman pats his tiny hand. “They’ll be back again next year, we can come again next year…”
Jesse slows down, then stops altogether. “Hold on,” he mumbles out the corner of his mouth.
Jack watches him set off an at an ambling jog, then drop to one knee beside the pair. A conversation transpires that’s too quiet for him to hear. He sees Jesse touch the spool of tickets draped across his shoulders, nod several times, and then whip the tickets off his neck and hand them to the woman. Jack can see most of her face from where he’s standing. Her lip starts to quiver. She says something to Jesse, and Jesse makes some motions and shakes his head. Then he pops onto his feet and trots back over again.
Jack quickly looks away so as not to be caught watching strangers. Jesse comes up to his side, hands shoved into his pockets. In a casual way, as though a stray thought has just come to him, he says, “Think I’ll come back to the room, too.”
Jack nods, and they walk away from the noise and the light into the summer night.
It’s unseasonably late to be chasing tornadoes in Texas, but that’s where they find themselves during the first week of September.
A long day has them checking into a motel well past the point when all the typical small-town establishments have closed—except for the bar across the street, directly opposite their ground-level room. They’d eaten an early dinner of sorts in their respective trucks, but a cold drink at the end of a hot day does sound good.
In retrospect, the number of vehicles parked around the bar on an otherwise nearly deserted street should have been a clue.
There’s a four-piece band playing inside. The bar is packed.
People are dancing.
They accept seats at the bar itself because there’s no other space available and order the lager on tap. They don’t say much to each other; there’s enough ambient noise to discourage idle conversation.
Jesse jogs his knee in time with the music as they drink. Their backs are to the dance floor, but he glances at it often. The bar skews close to their age range; there are hardly any twenty-somethings to be seen. Everywhere Jack looks are cowboy hats and boots. It’s like some distilled Hollywood pastiche of Texas.
Jesse fits right in.
“Do you know them?” Jack asks, jerking his head toward the band. Jesse’s been watching them with focused attentiveness.
“Huh? Naw; just sounds good.” Then Jesse slides out of his seat. “Gonna take a leak.”
A song ends and another begins while Jesse is gone. Jack takes his phone out to kill the time. There’s not much for him to do on it, but he goes to Jesse’s Instagram page. He has a knack for catching dramatic moments, even though he uses nothing but a years-old refurbished phone. But the most recent picture isn’t of a storm: it’s a shot of him, sitting inside his truck, while they were stopped for gas. The stuffed animal from the carnival is buckled into the passenger’s seat. Jesse’s Instagram followers can’t agree on what it is, either, but Jesse had transferred naming privileges upon them after Jack had failed to provide a name. In the photo both he and Buddy McFriendface are wearing reflective sunglasses and staring straight ahead. His arms are crossed. They look like a pair of unlikely partners from some kind of cop movie. He wonders, Do I always look that serious?
He hadn’t even noticed Jesse taking the picture.
There are four comments on the photo, but as Jack scrolls down to read them, Jesse announces his return by clapping him on the shoulder. Jack fumbles with the phone and drops it half an inch onto the bar.
Jesse doesn’t get back into his seat. He just stands there and says, “Hey. We should dance.”
Jack says, “Huh?”
“Dance. You know.” Jesse hooks his thumbs in his belt loops and bobbles slightly. “Everyone else is doin’ it. When in Rome, right?”
Jack looks around. Unfortunately, Jesse isn’t wrong. Behind him, a square dance has evolved out of nowhere.
“This isn’t Rome,” he manages.
“Oh, it’s way more significant than Rome. It’s Texas.”
Jack laughs helplessly, but he raises his hands in self defense. “Ah, no, no. You go ahead, but I don’t—uh. I don’t.”
“Don’t have fun?”
“Jack… You need to stretch. Sittin’ in a truck all day? It’s not good for a man.”
“Do you want to insult the good people of Texas by disrespectin’ their music?”
“They’re not insulted.”
“What if I’m insulted?”
“You’re not Texan.”
Jesse scoffs. But then he straightens all the way up and looks at him with hopeful sincerity shining in his eyes and says, simply, “Please?”
Jack grumbles. He shifts in his seat and grumbles some more. He looks away as he says, “Fine. One. One.”
Jesse beams at him.
Surprisingly, Jesse leaves his hat at the bar, marking his spot. Jack trails woodenly behind him to the edge of the dance floor. The floor isn’t large; there’s little space between each group of dancers. But the band’s caller seems to know how to handle the space. She chooses calls that keep everyone moving concisely without spreading out and jostling into one another. Jack is disappointed to realize that if they wait for the right call, they’ll be able to slip right into the dance without disrupting the flow. He watches with grim resignation even as his heel begins to tap, a sense of recognition and familiarity pulled to the surface of his brain. He knows these steps. From across the dance floor Jesse and the caller catch each other’s eye and exchange a nod. She’s going to help them in. Dammit.
But instead the dance ends. The final calls are given and the music winds down. There’s a smattering of applause and hoots as each square breaks apart. Jack claps, too, out of politeness. He looks at Jesse and shrugs as though to say, ‘well, what can be done?’ They missed their chance.
The band’s caller takes a sip of water and smiles out at the audience.
“We’re gonna play a slow number now for you folks, so grab someone you care about—or someone you want to get to know better.”
There are a few laughs and more hoots from around the room. A few people leave the dance floor, taking seats; others stand to join. The lights get dim. Pairs form as a soft melody begins. Jack steps back, getting out of the way. He turns and starts to sidle back toward the bar. He can probably pay their tab and be gone by the time the next song starts. Under other circumstances he might like to stay and enjoy the band, but this is his chance to make himself scarce before Jesse guilts him into doing a ten-step polka later.
But he doesn’t make it far. Jesse snags his arm as he passes. Jack lets himself be turned, pivoting on his foot.
“Said you’d dance,” Jesse drawls, looking him in the eye, holding his sleeve.
“This is a dance.” Jesse tugs on him. “This is easy.”
Jesse takes both his hands and matter-of-factly arranges them on his body, and then Jesse’s hands are on him, too, and Jack’s feet have to go along with the motion as Jesse starts to move him around in a small circle. He’s too surprised to resist.
“See?” Jesse says. “Easy.”
It’s not good dancing. Jack barely moves his feet, his hands resting limply where Jesse had placed them, not gripping or applying any pressure. He glances to either side of Jesse, eyes sliding past his face without resting on it as he scans the dance floor.
“No one’s looking,” Jesse whispers.
And it’s true; no one is. Every pair seems absorbed in one another, their faces half lost in the dim light.
Jesse rests a hand on the small of his back, pressing them gently but firmly closer.
“This has been good,” Jesse murmurs. “The whole season. Really good.”
“Yeah,” he agrees. He has to swallow first to open up his throat.
He shuffles his feet through the steps, moving just enough not to trip over himself as Jesse guides them through the dance. The band sounds like they’re playing from the bottom of swimming pool: far away, quiet. Everything is so far away. Except Jesse. Jesse is exactly his height. He can’t look ahead without seeing Jesse’s eyes. He smells like beer and cigarettes. Off-putting, but not. Jack starts to breathe shallowly through his mouth.
“You’re doin’ fine,” Jesse whispers.
Jack grunts, saying nothing.
Then Jesse’s head slowly lowers to rest on his shoulder. They’re closer together than Jack realized. Just a few inches between them.
“This is the longest season I’ve ever done.” Jesse’s breath touches his neck. “Hardly want to go back at all.”
Jack glances down. He sees Jesse’s shoulder, his forehead. It looks like his eyes are closed. He radiates warmth against the front of Jack’s body. This would be a sensible place from which to part ways. Nearly every other place they might travel from here would put Jesse farther from home. It’s nearly autumn.
“There’s always more time. Other years.”
Jesse’s quiet for a moment. His steps get slower. They come almost to a standstill.
“Used to think I liked doin’ this alone. It was all for me. I was in charge.” The hand on Jack’s back moves the smallest amount, aimlessly. “But I liked havin’ someone be part of it. Best time I ever had.”
Jack considers the situation with a frown. “You could join up with a team. Do it professionally; make a little money off it. I could - I could write you a letter of recommendation. Couple people out there still take me seriously. Someone would take you on, if you asked. Be stupid not to, if they knew what you can do.”
Jesse lifts his head up and looks at him. “Letter of recommendation, huh?” He smiles, but it doesn’t brighten his eyes at all. “Thanks. I’ll think about that.”
Jack drops his eyes. But Jesse’s so close there’s nowhere else to look. He stares fixedly at a faded, threadbare spot Jesse’s on shirt collar.
“You know, I’d been—I’d been thinking this might be my last year. That I was done with it. But I’ve... I don’t know. Not ready to give it up yet, I guess. Think I’ll give it another year.”
“Oh.” Jesse pauses. Swallows. “Can I… Can we do this again? If you… want… ”
Jack nods, raising his eyes again. “I’d like that.”
Now Jesse gives him a proper smile, full-mouthed and eye-scrunching.
Something jostles against Jack’s side. He stumbles and turns his head, blurting an automatic “sorry.” They’ve bumped into another pair of dancers, who break apart, startled, from a kiss. They say, “sorry,” too, and everyone shares an embarrassed laugh. They shuffle in opposite directions, trying to re-find more space.
Then the song ends. The lights come up again. Couples separate to applaud the band.
Jack does the same.
“We’ve got just a couple more songs for you tonight,” the band announces, and Jack claps Jesse on the arm.
“Gonna take care of our tab before everyone else rushes the bar. You want a last drink? Anything else to eat?”
Jesse shifts his weight, looking around the dance floor as there’s another small migration of people to and from their seats. His smile is gone. He says, “No.”
Jack settles their bill. He finds Jesse already standing near the door, hat on, looking neutrally at the wall decorations. But as they try to leave, a woman carrying a beer—clearly not her first of the night—inserts herself between them and the door and hauls each of them in turn into a powerful one-armed hug.
“I’m so glad both of you could make it,” she says, emphatically, in a thick slur. “Hope we see you at the next reunion. Family’s always welcome.”
He and Jesse exchange glances over the woman’s head.
“It was good to see you, too,” he says, kindly.
Outside the bar, Jesse grabs his shoulder and Jack clutches his stomach as they both burst into laughter, stumbling across the street.
“Oh, God, was that a family reunion?”
“Why’d they let us in?!”
“They didn’t have a sign anywhere… Maybe it was just—the after party?” Jack sweeps an arm back and forth to indicate the nearly-empty road. “No one else is here. Probably didn’t think they needed a, a guest list.”
They bump into one another as they trip across the street to their motel, laughing too hard to walk straight.
When they get there, Jesse leans against the wall beside the door, collecting himself, while Jack rummages for the key.
“Think you could spot me until we find an ATM?” Jesse asks. “Tipped all my cash to the band.”
“Sure,” he says, without hesitation. “Liked ‘em that much, huh?”
“Well, I owed them for switchin’ their set around. Wanted to make sure the right kinda song was playin’ when you got out there.”
Jack tilts his head and smiles, raising an eyebrow. “Oh? That slow one? I didn’t recognize it; was I supposed to?”
Jesse laughs and shakes his head. “You think I wanted to square dance with you, Jack?”
He doesn’t know what to say to that, so he doesn’t say anything. He pushes the door open and steps out of the way to let Jesse in first.
Jesse rolls his body away from the wall, starting with his hips. He takes a step toward the open door, then pauses just in front of the threshold. His jaw works back and forth.
“Mm. Think I forgot somethin’ at the bar.”
“Oh, I can go back—”
Jesse pushes the brim of his hat up and kisses him. It’s dry and closed-mouthed. Jesse’s beard and mustache rasp lightly against his face.
Jesse pulls back. They look at each other.
“We should get your. Thing. From the bar,” Jack manages.
“Naw; found it.”
Jesse kisses him again. It lasts barely long enough for him to register it’s happening. Jesse pulls back almost as soon as he’s made contact, his forehead creased. He’s never seen Jesse with quite that expression before. Jesse’s eyes shift rapidly over his face.
“You can—forget I did that. Won’t happen again. I—”
He touches Jesse’s face. Lightly, just along his jaw. Jesse’s lips part, then close again as he swallows. Jack leans toward him, and Jesse catches his mouth again. He cups Jesse’s face between his palms. Their lips brush once, then again. And then the kiss isn’t dry and close-mouthed anymore. Jesse opens for him, his body arcing into a curve that pushes their chests together as Jack leans forward and forward, getting into his space, making Jesse support the cant of his body. He puts an arm around the ellipse of Jesse’s back. Jesse’s hat falls backwards off his head. Jesse flings an arm up around his shoulders and coaxes him in, closer, until their combined center of gravity shifts too far and they stagger an awkward step, Jesse’s back thudding against the door frame and Jack trapping him against it. Jesse’s laugh ripples into his mouth, and they separate to grin at each other, and then kiss again, and then laugh together. Jesse’s hand falls away from his shoulders and lands on his ass, grabbing him, pulling him in.
A car honks, and Jack whips his head around. Across the street, in the parking lot, someone is leaning out the window of a truck and waving a cowboy hat back and forth, whooping. Someone in another truck rolls their window down and wolf whistles.
They glance at one another, and Jesse slyly bites his lip. “We gonna take this inside?”
Jack pulls his weight together and draws back from Jesse, nodding. With his body still hiding Jesse’s from view, Jesse grips the front of his pants and pointedly adjusts himself. Then he, too, stands up straight.
Jesse picks up his hat from the ground, brushes it off, and places it on his head. He starts to turn through the open door but catches himself on the frame, making Jack nearly collide with him. “Wait—before we—wait.”
He goes hobbling over to his truck and unlocks the passenger’s side door to rummage through his glove compartment box. Then comes trotting back with a strip of condoms dangling from his fist like another string of carnival tickets.
“How, how long have those been in there?” Jack asks, ushering Jesse hastily into the room and pulling the door shut. He secures the chain bolt latch.
“Oh, less than a year.”
“It was a hundred degrees every day last week; throw those out!”
Jesse gives him a profoundly betrayed look, but he plods over to the trash can and makes pointed eye contact as he throws the condoms down into it. Then he picks up his overnight bag from the desk chair and plunders around inside. A balled-up pair of socks falls out and rolls across the floor. Jesse surfaces with a flattened tube. He opens the cap, shakes it up and down, and squeezes his fist around it. Nothing comes out.
“Mmm… So, you got lube?”
“Alright… so… No condoms, no lube…”
“Alright,” Jack says. He means to say more than that, but instead he pries the bag out of Jesse’s hands and pushes him over backward onto the closest bed. The tube falls to the floor.
Jesse’s eyes spark up at him. He tosses his hat onto the other bed. His legs kick through the air as he scrunches up to yank at his boots and socks. He throws them aside and sits up, making a beckoning motion with both hands. “Okay, okay, c’mere, c’mere.”
As Jesse takes off his boots, Jack does the same. Then he strolls toward the bed.
Jesse grabs him and hauls him down, flipping both of them around so that Jack ends up sprawled on his back with Jesse kneeling over him, straddling his legs.
“Here,” he says, lifting his chin, and Jesse swoops down onto him, mouth meeting mouth. They roll together, coming to rest on their sides, and he hikes one of Jesse’s long sturdy legs over his hip, gripping him under the knee. Jesse grunts against his lips and hitches even closer.
“Is this too fast?” Jack asks when they part for breath, and Jesse slaps a hand against his chest, laughing.
“‘Is this too fast!’” he guffaws. “It is—no. It is not too fast. You wanna go slower?”
“I don’t know. No. Wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“I’m okay.” Jesse’s hands frame his face. They kiss again. Jesse takes his bottom lip between his own and sucks it. When Jack makes a satisfied noise, Jesse uses his teeth to tug his lip out, the pressure making his mouth feel warm and tender.
Then Jesse rocks his hips, dragging the bulge of his cock against him. They’re both hard. He makes another noise and grips Jesse tighter.
Jesse leans his head back, releasing his lip. “Can I touch you more?”
He says, “Yeah,” and they get their shirts off—inefficiently, because they keep diving in to find each other’s mouths. He’s seen Jesse shirtless many times now: a barrel chest and thick waist, a heavy tract of hair from his pecs to his his groin, pierced nipples. But he’s never touched. Never felt the heat coming off bare skin from inches away.
Jesse draws back to look at him with unabashed hunger, eyes roaming. “Oh,” he says. “You’ve got ink.” He lays a hand on Jack’s chest. “What’s this?”
“Sacred Heart. It’s—old.” It’s at the center of his chest, the colors dulled with age: the heart crested with fire, pierced and bleeding, surrounded by thorns and radiating light. Jesse runs his fingers through the hair that covers it. Jack puts his hands on Jesse’s waist. “You like it?”
“It suits you.”
Jack lets his eyes wander up and down. “Do you want to see more?”
“Get naked for me.”
Jesse does, with a speed and sureness that puts warmth into Jack’s belly. He drops his shirt and his heavy, gaudy belt buckle over the side of the bed, kicks off his jeans, and peels his boxers down his legs. He’s got a thick cock, like all the rest of him, and he’s uncut. He makes eye contact the entire time he undresses. But he holds still once he’s naked, not touching either of their bodies. Just poised, waiting.
Jack shifts onto his back, hips lifting a couple inches from the bed as he pulls his belt through its loops and opens the front of his pants.
“Come here,” he says, and Jesse moves eagerly closer. Jack takes his hand and guides it into his pants. Jesse grips enthusiastically. Then his eyes get big.
“Oh, you’re kiddin’ me.”
He grabs the hem of Jack’s pants with his other hand but pauses, looking him in the eye.
“Okay if I…?”
Jack helps him, and they work his pants and underwear down his legs. Jesse groans deep in his chest and rocks back and forth, kneading his own thighs, as Jack finishes undressing himself.
“Jesus Christ, look at your cock.”
“I’ve seen it.” He reaches out and flicks the tip of his thumb against one of Jesse’s barbells. “I’ve seen these, too.”
Jesse’s eyelids flutter. He reaches out, too, but pauses—then grabs the shaft of his cock, stroking it from base to tip, where the heavy ring shines under the room’s light.
“So you’re into some freaky stuff, huh?”
“It was a, a phase.”
Jesse laughs, his hand moving firmly up and down. “Ain’t a phase if you’re still wearin’ it.” He leans down, bringing his mouth very close. “Can I…?”
Jack places a palm on the back of his head and gently pushes him the final inch.
Jesse nudges the ring with his tongue, then licks broadly over the head. Jesse mouths up and down the length of his cock, leading with his tongue and chasing each wet little touch with his lips. When Jesse takes the whole head into his mouth and sucks on it, Jack’s hips buck a little, helplessly.
Jesse moves his hand in upward squeezes as he sucks, and his other hand tucks up beneath Jack’s balls and presses against the tender spot behind them, making his legs jerk and straighten.
“Ah, Hell,” he says to the ceiling.
Already he feels the wound-up tightness of an orgasm building in his body. He prods his thumb against the corner of Jesse’s mouth to break the seal of his lips, and Jesse raises his head, lips wet and eyes hazy.
“Come here so I can touch you,” he says, and Jesse crawls up his body until they’re face to face. Jack tucks a bit of Jesse’s hair behind his ear. “Do you mind if I…”
He hasn’t yet decided what he’s going to ask, so he trails of without finishing the request, but Jesse nods immediately. “Anything, I swear, fuckin’ anything.”
So Jack goes for his chest, gripping him by the handful. Jesse arches into him, eyes sliding shut. Then Jack touches his nipples—with intent this time, not just teasing him with quick straying brushes but pinching them, rubbing them until they feel hot and Jesse’s face creases with an expression of sweet agony. And then Jack uses his mouth. He takes one between his lips and explores the rounded ends of the barbell with the tip of his tongue. He sucks on the warm skin until Jesse’s hips jerk. A bead of pre-come swells heavy enough from the tip of Jesse’s cock to fall onto Jack’s skin. He lays a hand on the small of Jesse’s back and urges him closer so that the tiny motions of his body can’t be hidden or suppressed.
All at once Jesse seems to lose himself. He pulls away from Jack’s mouth but folds all his weight down so that they’re pressed snugly together, his hips surging forward. The heat of his cock drags against Jack’s thigh and hip like a brand; he opens his mouth and sucks air into his chest as Jesse moves against him.
“Ah,” he says, and Jesse also says ah, his face buried against Jack’s neck and shoulder as Jesse ruts against his body, against his cock. Sweat immediately builds along the front of Jack’s torso; he feels the same thing happen to Jesse’s. Jack eases his legs wider, opening himself up to the messy urgent physicality of the act. There’s no show to it, no posturing. There’s just need. The need to touch. To be touched. He squeezes the meat of Jesse’s hips between his hands and digs his heels into the mattress to give himself the leverage to rock up against him.
It’s been long enough since he’s been touched that this sticky rub of flesh on flesh is doing it for him, setting off an ache in his groin and thighs that has him tossing his head back, gritting his teeth. “Jesse, Christ, oh.”
Jesse grips his hair and hangs tightly onto it.
Jack comes between their bodies, shuddering in waves as he lets go. The effect ripples over into Jesse: he inhales heavily so close to Jack’s skin that he feels the air rush through the gap between his neck and Jesse’s mouth, cooling it. Jesse ruts through the mess spilled between them, grinding it into Jack’s belly. When it dries it’ll be uncomfortable, but right now the slippery wetness is filthily pleasant.
He bends his legs up, wrapping them around Jesse’s hips with his ankles hooked together, and sneaks a hand between their abdomens to cup himself protectively as Jesse’s body bears down on his, crushing skin against skin. His other hand strokes up and down Jesse’s back, clutching the nape of his neck and drawing shallow creases into the skin along his spine.
“That’s it, that’s it, come on, Jesse…”
Jesse stops rocking back and forth, but his hips continue to move, flexing in place like he wants to bury himself deep. His breath trembles humidly against Jack’s shoulder. Jack rubs the back of his neck, damp strands of hair sticking to his fingers.
They stay like that for awhile, the AC unit rattling softly under the window. Then Jesse pushes himself up on his arms, peeling their bodies apart. The pungent smell of sex diffuses into the air from between them. Jack looks, and then lets his head fall back with a groan.
Gingerly, Jesse settles back on the bed, close by but not touching him. He’s breathing hard through his nose like a man who’s winded but trying not to show it.
Jack reaches out and encounters his thigh, and gives it a solid smack.
“You set me up.”
Jesse’s body quakes as he starts to laugh, setting the bed to quivering.
“I dropped hint after fuckin’ hint. ‘Set you up’—what else could I do!”
Jack rolls onto his side, supporting himself on his elbow and resting his jaw on his fist. In his best aw shucks voice he asks, “C’mon, what hints?”
Jesse throws a hand into the air. “What hints? Be easier to list everythin’ that wasn’t a hint! You gonna tell me you didn’t notice any of it?”
“Well. I was trying not to be the kind of old man who thinks—you know—that every pretty young think he meets is flirting with him.”
“‘Pretty young thing,’” Jesse repeats, sarcastically. “You always such a flatterer, Jack Morrison?”
“Well, I’m not a liar.”
Jesse scoffs, and then the noise turns into a horrified choke. Jack starts to sit up in alarm.
“We let Buddy see everythin’,” he says in dismay.
The stuffed toy is sitting on one of the motel chairs, gazing placidly at them. Jack sighs and gets to his feet. He picks Buddy up, carries him to the other bed, and lays him down with his face toward the wall and the blankets pulled over his eyes. Then he pitches himself back down on the bed beside Jesse.
They lie like that for some time, both of them on their backs, slightly separated from one another. His ankle touches one of Jesse’s. When he looks, Jesse is squinting soberly at the ceiling.
“What’re you thinking about?”
Jesse’s head turns a bit toward him. “Lot of things.”
“Yeah? Wanna tell me any of them?”
Jesse gnaws at his lip, and Jack ends up staring at his mouth longer than he should. “Thinkin’ about how the weather’s gonna change soon. Thinkin’ about how we’re a good team.”
“Oh,” Jack says. “We are. Yeah.” He pauses. Something hangs in the air between them. One of them needs to reach out a hand to take it.
Jesse McCree is no coward. If he won’t do it, it’s because he can’t. It’s not for him to do.
Jack draws in a long, slow breath. “I know I’m asking a lot, especially after you’ve been away from home for so long, but if you want to spend any time in Indiana—”
“Yes.” Jesse instantly covers his mouth, then tugs at his beard. “—I mean. Can I?”
“Come home with me,” Jack whispers. “Stay for while. As long as you want to.”
Jesse opens his mouth, then closes it again. Abruptly he turns his back, facing the other direction. Jack hears him take shivery little breaths. He waits for a moment, then puts the back of his hand lightly against against him. Jesse doesn’t flinch from it, so that’s how they stay until Jesse starts to breathe normally again and, at last, returns to his original position. He stares upward, scrubbing a hand against the side of his face, next to the corner of his eye. “‘Askin' a lot,’” he mutters. “Jack Morrison, you haven’t asked for a single goddamn thing this entire time. Just, ah. I don’t know—what’s—next.”
“How about a shower?” he says, and Jesse snickers, wiping at his eyes again.
“You think it’ll fit us both?”
“Dunno. Let’s find out.”
He sits up, his vertebrae going crack, crack, crack along the way, and climbs out of the bed. He gives Jesse his hand and pulls him up, too, and they fling an arm around one another as they stumble on toward their next challenge.