Authors: Sharon Gillenwater
© 2011 by Sharon Gillenwater
Published by Revell
a division of Baker Publishing Group
P.O. Box 6287, Grand Rapids, MI 49516-6287
E-book edition created 2011
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—for example, electronic, photocopy, recording—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
To Lynn and Mary, sisters-in-law by title, sisters in my heart. Thank you for being you!
She’d thought things couldn’t get any worse.
She’d been wrong.
With the windshield wipers swishing at high speed, Megan Smith eased her minivan off the narrow two-lane highway into the mud beside the road and turned on the emergency flashers. She peered at the outside mirror in a useless attempt to see behind her. Had the driver of the eighteen-wheeler she’d passed about ten miles back pulled off the road too?
“Better not risk it,” she muttered and moved farther to the right, hoping the bar ditch was still as wide and shallow as it had been for the past thirty miles across the West Texas ranch country. When she didn’t slide into a man-made mini-ravine, she shut off the windshield wipers and the engine. She couldn’t afford to waste a drop of gas.
Megan tried the radio again. Not even static. Why did it have to quit working today? She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel.
Grumbling at the radio wouldn’t ease her frustration. She couldn’t blame it for her dumb mistake. It was mid-May, with high temperatures in the nineties. She’d lived in Texas most of her life and knew what a developing thundercloud looked like. She’d just been too disappointed in her mother to pay any attention to it.
“I thought maybe she’d gotten sober, Sweet Baby,” she said softly, laying a hand on her round stomach. Why had she driven by her mother’s house in San Angelo? What had she hoped for? Flowers in the yard? The grass mowed and the place looking like a well-kept home?
Or some indication that a miracle had happened in the eight years she’d been gone.
At least she’d had the good sense not to contact her mother. And the disheveled woman stumbling down the porch steps, a bottle of beer in her hand, hadn’t noticed the dark green van parked at the corner.
A tiny foot kicked against her palm. Was that little movement simply in response to her voice? Or was Sweet Baby trying to tell her that she—or he—understood that she’d never deliberately do anything to put them in harm’s way?
Though she may have done so unintentionally. She hadn’t passed a house for miles. Now she was out in open country in the middle of a major thunderstorm. Lightning flashed, startling her. “One-one-thousand. Two-one-thousand. Three-one—”
Megan gasped as the windows rattled and the thunder continued to rumble. “Oh, Baby, that was too close.” A few miles behind her, there had been some live oaks and mesquites in the pastures, but it was raining so hard she couldn’t tell if there were any nearby. “What if we’re in the highest thing around?” Would lightning strike them? Would they be electrocuted?
A gust of wind shook the van and swept sheets of water at an angle across the windshield. Lightning flashes surrounded them, with mere seconds in between. The thunder boomed and rumbled almost continuously. She patted her stomach to comfort her child. And herself.
After about ten minutes, the lightning and thunder eased up and the torrential rain slacked off a bit. Though it was still heavy, Megan thought she’d be able to drive. As she reached to turn the key, the blast of a truck horn made her shriek. The semi roared by, shifting into the next gear. The trucker wasn’t going fast, but the van still rocked violently. “Hey! Get a brain, jerk!”
Slumping against the back of the seat, she took a deep breath, trying to calm her pounding heart. “People just don’t think about anybody else, Sweet Baby. You’ll need to remember that and watch out for them.”
Thunk . . . thunk . . . thunk, thunk, thunk. Baseball-sized hail smacked the top and hood of the minivan and bounced off the road.
Not good. So not good!
She moved the seat as far back as possible. Reaching between the bucket seats, she grabbed a pillow and laid it across her stomach. As she picked up the other one, a hailstone hit the windshield right in front of her. It didn’t come through but shattered the glass into a giant spiderweb of cracks.
With a cry, she leaned forward and tented the second pillow over her head, stuffing it between her forehead and the steering wheel, pulling each side down to shield her face. The hail pounded against the vehicle like a frenzied drummer at a heavy metal concert.
The driver’s side window exploded, spraying splinters and chunks of glass over her bare arm and legs. Something smacked her upper back, but she didn’t know if it was a piece of ice or glass. A hailstone hit her thigh and another pounded her upper arm. Sobbing in fear and pain, she closed her eyes and hunched forward even more, trying to protect her baby. Glass showered her as the right window burst and a hailstone landed in the passenger seat. Rain whipped through the driver’s side window, drenching her.
The earsplitting din tapered off for a couple of minutes, then stopped completely. She carefully straightened, draping the soggy pillow across the steering wheel. Was it over?
Trembling, she felt faint. She took a deep breath, then another, and assessed her situation. Her arm and thigh ached where the hailstones had hit them, but she could move both limbs. Nothing was broken. Rain mingled with small trickles of blood on her arms and legs, but there were no big cuts. The bright red contrasted eerily with the shimmering, glitter-like glass covering her skin.
Something big and hard was wedged between her back and the seat. Not cold enough to be hail. Glass. She set both pillows on the passenger seat, leaned toward the steering wheel, and opened the door. Staying as far from the seat back as possible, she swung her legs around toward the open door and winced as her bare skin scraped over bits of glass. The wind buffeted her, and when she stepped out into the mud, her feet slipped and her legs almost buckled.
Holding onto the top of the door and the van, she steadied herself. Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled, but it wasn’t as bad as before. She pulled an ice scraper from the door pocket and swept the big round chunk of glass, along with several smaller pieces, from the seat. “We’re okay, little one. We’re gonna be all right.”
Megan put the scraper away, straightened, and surveyed the van. The windshield was shattered but still in one piece. All the windows on the driver’s side were smashed in, as well as the front passenger side and rear hatch. The two back windows on the right side were intact but cracked. The van was paid for. She could drive it with a gazillion dents, but she couldn’t go far without windows. And she had no insurance.
Hearing a roar, she looked behind her—and froze.
She stared at the dark column spinning from the cloud to the ground, ripping across the rangeland toward them. There wasn’t time to try to outrun it in the van. The twister was too wide, too close, and moving fast.
Her first-grade teacher’s crisp instructions raced through her mind.
Get away from the car. Get in a ditch.
“There is no ditch!”
Megan ran up the highway, slipping but not falling on the ice-covered pavement, desperately looking for a place lower than the surrounding ground.
God help me!
She’d never prayed. Didn’t even know if there was a God. She’d always taken care of herself. Had to. But it wasn’t just her anymore.
God, if you’re real, please save us.
The bar ditch was deeper there, but it still looked awfully shallow. Gasping for breath, Megan stopped and checked the tornado bearing down on them. It had turned slightly, but they were still in its path. That little dip beside the road was her only chance. “Please, God,” she whispered. “Don’t let my baby die.”
She kicked some hailstones aside and dropped to her knees in the ditch, frantically brushing away huge chunks of ice so she could lie down. Wiggling deeper into the water and mud, she stretched out as flat as possible. She rested her face on a little clump of grass and turned her head to the side to breathe. Covering her head and neck with her hands and arms, she squeezed her eyes tightly shut.
She’d heard people compare a tornado’s roar to a freight train. A hundred locomotives was more like it. The wind tugged at her shirt and hair. Dirt and rocks pelted her back, legs, and arms. Something scraped across her hip.
We aren’t low enough.
Tears slipped from beneath her eyelids, melding with the rain.
I’m sorry, Sweet Baby. I love you.
If there was a heaven, Megan hoped it had a special place for innocent babies. She didn’t figure she’d find out firsthand. Wind, rain, and debris battered her. It hurt, but nothing felt big enough to cause her serious damage. She held her breath until the pressure in her ears made her cry out.
Her heart pounded in terror, and she dragged in another deep breath, waiting to be sucked up into the tornado like Dorothy and Toto.
I don’t have any red shoes. And no home to go to even if I did.
“Hurry up!” she shouted, but the sound vanished in the roar. “If you’re going to kill me, do it! Get it over with.”
Had she really heard those last few words? She listened as hard as she could above the pulse thundering in her ears.
It’s not as loud.
Nor was the wind as strong. Nothing else hit her. Megan swallowed hard, afraid to move.
She lay there for several minutes as the noise grew dimmer, then disappeared. Shaking violently, she slowly got to her knees. The wind had died down to a breeze; the rain had gentled. The lightning and thunder were miles away.
Resting her hands on her mud-covered stomach, she whispered, “We made it.” But her baby didn’t wiggle or kick in reply. That probably wasn’t unusual, was it? Babies didn’t move around all the time. Though Sweet Baby usually responded to activity or noise. Maybe now that things had settled down the poor little thing was trying to relax.
She hoped so. Worry crept into her mind. Could she have harmed the baby by lying on her stomach? Or exposing it to the violent storm? Had her terror somehow affected her child? She’d never heard of such a thing, but she wasn’t an expert on babies or pregnancy. It was definitely learn-as-you-go and hope she was doing things right.
In the pasture across the road, the ravaged land marked the tornado’s path. The destruction was at least three blocks wide and went as far across the prairie as she could see. The fence on that side was completely gone. Two mesquite trees, dozens of branches, and half of a large live oak lay in the middle of the two-lane road next to her.
The fence to her right was undamaged, though a small mesquite limb hung from the barbed wire. Just beyond it in the pasture, mesquite trees, prickly pear cactus, and purple verbena and yellow buttercups had been ripped out of the ground and tossed aside as if a giant had been pulling weeds. A nearby windmill was twisted like a corkscrew. At that point, the tornado had turned almost northward, running parallel to the highway.
Megan glanced down the road. Her van was flipped over on its side, but it appeared to be in one piece. Astonished relief swept through her. Her belongings were scattered along the road and in the pasture, but she’d expected to see pieces of the vehicle. Or not see it at all. The van shouldn’t be there.
Neither should she.
She’d knelt in the only undamaged area of the tornado’s path. A tornado sometimes bounced around, but given this one’s size, the single, thirty-foot, untouched ragged circle—with her smack dab in the middle—could not be credited to a whim of Mother Nature.
She had experienced a miracle. God was real, and he had heard her plea. He had spared them.
She didn’t know why. She was a nobody. There wasn’t a single person on earth who cared whether she lived or died. For some reason God did. Maybe it was a mother’s cry to save her child that had stirred his compassion. It certainly wasn’t because she was worth saving.
“Thank you.” She closed her eyes, overwhelmed with gratitude and awe. “Thank you. I don’t know much about you, God. But I’ll learn about you, learn what you want from me. I’ll find out how to repay you for saving us.” The promise came from the depths of her soul.
She lifted her face to the rain, letting it wash away the mud. Oddly, she felt as if some of the filth of her past was being washed away too. Fanciful thought. People couldn’t erase what happened to them or what they’d done.
But you don’t have to wallow in the mud.
That had been her motto since she was sixteen. Looking down at the front of her body, she smiled. “Unless you’re trying to escape a tornado.”
She pushed to her feet and ran her hand over the front of her shirt, knocking off the big chunks of mud. But when she cautiously wiped a small spot on her thigh below her shorts, ground glass dug into her skin. Sucking in her breath, she swiped her hand on a clump of grass. The mud and the glass weren’t her biggest problems.
She was soaking wet, chilled, shaken. And about fifteen or sixteen miles from the nearest town, according to a “Callahan Crossing 20 Miles” sign she’d passed earlier.
The rain slacked off to little more than a sprinkle as she walked back to the van. It would be even better when the rain completely stopped. In a perfect world, the clouds would drift away, and the sunshine would warm her up. She glanced at the gray, cloudy sky. The worst of the storm had passed, and that was good enough.
She stopped beside her vehicle and scanned the things scattered on the ground between it and the barbed wire fence. Two cans of pinto beans, a jar of peanut butter, a magazine she’d found by a dumpster, a saucepan, and a full, refillable water bottle.