Roused by the cacophony of a weather alert on his phone, Rudy Gantt stared out the RV’s windshield and noted that the space between earth and sky had gone matte gray during his nap. He didn’t see a twister, only swipes of flat, cream-white cloud against the new darkness. Taking the wheel of the gently rocking RV, Rudy was glad he hadn’t yet chocked the wheels; it took only a couple of minutes to back the vehicle snug against the rear wall of the family farmhouse. A little extra protection cost nothing.
The RV was no place to take shelter from a tornado, especially stuck out on the road, but neither was the farmhouse and its cellar, dark and earthen as the grave. Rudy walked quickly up the long gravel drive to where the M26 Pershing sat by the road, as it had since the late 1950s when his grandfather purchased the tank at auction. The turret was still pointed in the direction of a planned highway that, to his grandfather’s satisfaction, never came through. The ambush arrived from the rear: the farm failed and the land around it sold for nothing, only to become suburbia a decade later—over a hundred near-identical two-story homes with fenced yards out from which umbrellas and tarps and colorful children’s toys were now being released into the sky with a near-festive air.
Rudy supposed new homes would grow from this property, too, once a buyer was found for the remaining quarter acre of tired soil. Rudy had been here for only a couple of days, and didn’t plan on staying longer than it took to find a broker to get the land sold. This had never been home to him. And, anyway, he’d never been the nostalgic type. Nostalgia, now especially, was poison without an antidote. Better to let the past drift off, like the two patio umbrellas he was watching rise high into the sky. He squinted. Farther away danced wind-scooped somethings; it was hard to tell without an earthly context. All of it hung mesmerizingly weightless, as though disabused of gravity.
Believing in the strength of armored steel, Rudy climbed atop his grandfather’s forty-ton tank. It was then, while considering whether it’d be safer to take a driver’s position or enter through the commander’s hatch, that a bit of white caught his eye—a postal jeep zipping out from the subdivision at an impressive clip. Rudy couldn’t even hear it over the waterfalls of wind. At the curve beyond the farmhouse, the jeep went straight off the road and into the cottonwood-lined gully, disappearing from sight so quickly that Rudy thought he might have imagined the entire transit. He descended from his grandfather’s tank and soon his shoes were crumbling down the embankment on the other side of the street. The jeep’s door slid open and a mailman emerged, a big guy sweating blood from his forehead. One of his arms was in a cast, which threw Rudy; it looked as though an injury had been incurred and mended in the span of a moment. As the mailman climbed free, the Jeep tipped completely on its side and splashed into what little water ran there under the matting of dead grass. The mailman tumbled after his jeep, then sat tight against its filthy underside, his good arm reaching for something to take hold of. Seeing Rudy approach, the mailman shouted, but Rudy couldn’t hear a word.
Rudy had never experienced a tornado before, but he had lived through a bad earthquake and through rough seas during his stint in the merchant marine. There’d also been his share of scuffles and fistfights, and later, after law school, he had argued in court in front of judges who glared at him as though he were sleeping with their wives and daughters. The opportunities in his life to be afraid didn’t even count the last few years. Set against all that, Rudy wasn’t terribly afraid of a little prairie gust.
Rudy brought the man to his feet and pointed up the embankment. As he helped the mailman to the street, Rudy saw that the veil of debris in the sky was now nearly overhead: slippery strips of flashing and bowed roofing; pieces of thrashing cloth; balloons, improbably—all of it dangling overhead like a giant mobile of garbage. Rudy grew moderately concerned.
At the tank, he managed to stuff the mailman through the commander’s hatch. Something—he never knew what—whipped across Rudy’s arm and left an instant welt that didn’t bubble with blood until Rudy was in the tank and pulling down the hatch with the full weight of his body. The wind tugged at his ears, letting go only when he had the hatch secured.
In the Pershing for the first time in years, Rudy noticed how much of the equipment had been stripped, which was just as well; the two had barely enough space.
“Go go go!” the mailman shouted.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Rudy said, blocking the man who now wanted out at the news. “Relax. It’s built like a tank, right?”
So as not to focus exclusively on the storm outside, they exchanged personal facts. The man’s name was Moon, originally from Georgia, he said, thirty-two years old, blood type O+. Moon was sitting too close for Rudy to have a good sense of what the man looked like, though from the light that came in through the prisms around the hatch overhead, Rudy could see that the mailman was pretty banged up from driving off the road. Or perhaps from earlier—whatever incident had put his arm in a cast.
“Is it over?” Moon asked, his breath rasping.
Rudy rose and squinted through the prisms, but he saw only gray grime. He put his phone into flashlight mode and lay it atop the empty comm box. It illuminated the tank’s white, pebbly interior, graffiti and dick pictograms everywhere. Also a swash of blood across Moon’s white cast and a good line of it down Rudy’s own arm, too, which stung. His phone gave off another weather alert so loud that Moon was spurred into prayer. Rudy shut off his phone. Unlike the RV, the weighty Pershing sat motionless.
“I have a wife and a little girl,” Moon said. “She’s nineteen months.” He was fishing for something in his wallet—a driver’s license. “That’s the address. Tell them I love them. Tell them—”
“Slow, deep breaths,” Rudy said, refusing the card. “You’re going to give yourself a heart attack.” They sat still, as though they could hide from the passing storm. Moon started talking low. “What are you mumbling?” Rudy said.
“Stop it. You’ll be fine.”
The interior stank from the air going out through the edges of the pistol ports and probably out every other fissure in the tank, conjuring out a think pong of oil and grease that put Moon into a sneezing fit. It took a moment for Rudy to realize he was hearing Moon sobbing. Having Moon there, fearful for the both of them, instilled Rudy with a delicate, observational calm. He was happy to not be alone.
“My great-grandfather was a foreman in Detroit,” Rudy said. “He built these Pershing tanks.” Moon went quiet. “My grandfather fought in Europe in an M26 like this, first as a loader, then co-driver, then driver. He never sat here, though, commanding. And then my Dad… Dad was a hippie-type. He told me he’d hang peace flags off of the gun and lock himself inside smoking dope, his own giant U.S. Army bong. Drove my grandfather nuts, since he couldn’t get at him. My brothers and my sister grew up here when my father lost our house and brought the brood here. I guess there was some necessary forgiveness then. I was already moved out.” Rudy didn’t know why he was telling Moon any of this. The wind moaned at a higher pitch, or maybe it was Moon doing the moaning. “I lost all my brothers and my sister in the virus,” Rudy said. “Fucking Thanksgiving, you know?” Rudy made a sound that did not resemble the heavy laugh he was reaching for. “What about you?”
“Moon,” Moon said.
Now Rudy calibrated correctly and grunted. “That’s some concussion you got, Moon. We’re going to need to get you looked at.”
They sat together, motionless. Waiting. The wind outside seemed to seethe.
“I took in all my brothers’ and sister’s dogs, afterwards,” Rudy continued. “A retired greyhound, a miniature Doberman, a dachshund, two German shepherds, a poodle mix, a few mutts. You can’t imagine how much they crap. The dogs are with my niece right now, until I get back from selling this place. Whatever we get, it’s going to go toward dog food, vet bills, and paying for her college.”
Moon nodded, or looked like he was nodding. He wasn’t praying again, so that was good at least. People praying around Rudy always made him feel simultaneously lacking and superior, which were both crummy mind states to be in. Rudy preferred complaints to prayer; they stayed earthbound and required no fulfillment. “I wasn’t the best older brother,” he said. “Never bothered to learn the names of all their pets, for one thing. My niece remembered some, and a couple of the dogs had it engraved on their collars, but the rest… That’s a lot of names to remember. And I just didn’t care enough then.”
“Allergic,” Moon said, then twitched as a curious noise raked the tank, like the hatch alone was being tapped by a hundred metal spoons.
“Hail,” Rudy said.
He rose up and looked through the prisms but didn’t tell Moon that what he saw was simply rain; rain pummeling the tank with such force that the metal looked as though it was going soft. The M26 did a curious thing then. Something it had never done in seven decades. It bucked.
Moon, crouching tighter in on himself, went into a string of expletives that deserved, given the circumstances, every dispensation coming to him. Rudy knocked on Moon’s cast. “Hey. We have four inches of armor here, soldier. Don’t be afraid. They should be afraid. Now, man the telescope.” Rudy tapped the scope’s eyepiece. “Find us a target.”
Rudy hadn’t played war since the one summer he’d spent here with his siblings. He’d been in high school then; they were embarrassingly elementary. The ditch on the other side of the road had been the Rhine, and they were forever advancing, pushing back the German army. The tank, which had never budged an inch then, now heaved upwards, then down, then up again, as though the tank were slowly crushing the countryside, protecting the men of the 9th around them who would do the dirty work by hand.
Moon slouched and placed his eye to the scope, taking away the twinkle of light. Rudy had no idea if the gunnery scope even worked anymore.
“Blurry,” Moon said, his free arm bracing himself as the M26 once more climbed over something, then went back down again, roughly.
Rudy rose up and put a hand over his head to protect it against the hatch and all the jostling. He checked the view out the prisms: a burst of bright sparking light to the side, then darkness, then only the maw of dirt and debris and, for a moment, what looked like a tree walking across the ground on its own. The tank grumbled at the tumult outside. Rudy pulled down his hand and sucked the blood from his knuckles.
“Have a bead on them?” Rudy said, crouching beside Moon now. “Barrett’s still pulling up shells from the floor.” Barrett had been his grandfather’s loader in the war. Rudy was surprised he remembered the name.
“C’mon Barrett,” Moon muttered.
Rudy nodded as the tank lurched fiercely. The clangor around them sent vibrations all the way down to Rudy’s balls. They were in the heart of the battle now. “The 90mm,” Rudy explained. “Good job, Barrett.”
“Good job, Barrett,” Moon said.
Rudy struck his head against the interior and was enraptured by the tank’s unyielding solidity. Something outside sang with the wind now, a modulating tone that Rudy imagined was the main gun sticking out into the running measures of wind. The finger.
Moon, Rudy noticed, seemed focused and less fearful now within the protection of their war game. Rudy shouted orders to the other members of his grandfather’s crew: not only to Barrett, but to Johnson and Brown, too. Moon rallied them and grew agitated and then even a little gleeful in his concussed state. The tank clanked then as it took a thousand rounds from every direction; Rudy could picture the bullets bouncing off the tank’s sides. After a few more seconds, it grew not only quieter, but suddenly quiet, as though they had slipped free from the mayhem of the battle. Light came down from the prisms in bright webs; Rudy realized he’d been crying. He wiped his eyes clear and could see sweat across Moon’s cheeks and blood painted down his face.
“I pissed myself,” Moon said. “I pissed myself, sir.”
“That’s fine,” Rudy said.
Moon asked Barrett, Johnson, and Brown whether they had also pissed themselves. The mailman was definitely not right in the head.
Rudy put a finger to his lips and rose up to open the commander’s hatch. The outside smelled raw and fetid. He noted a thick seam of gravel lodged in the turret ring, then saw that the farmhouse had been thrown clear across the road and into the old field. No, it was the entire tank that had been turned around and left here in the road. And though Rudy recognized that now, the disorientation remained.
Rudy could see that the farmhouse’s roof was gone. One wall was buckled. Of the trees that remained, all had been stripped of their leaves and of most branches. The gravel drive from the road to the farmhouse had been scooped clean, revealing the old ruts his great-grandfather must have made with a tractor. Debris began to fall then. Rudy closed the hatch and they waited in the darkness for everything to finish dropping from the sky.
Later, from inside his late brother’s RV, Rudy saw the first responders come around the corner of the farmhouse. Through the smashed windshield, their shapes looked splintered and pale. They knocked at the door, opened it, stepped inside, and froze.
With the roads blocked by fallen trees, Rudy had patched Moon up as best he could, then took him on a mission to keep him active and alert. They’d filled the RV with mementos scavenged from the farmhouse: framed family photos, an accordion, an ornate cuckoo clock his grandfather had brought back from Germany, and a leather combat helmet that Rudy’s great-grandfather had smuggled from his own war and which now sat atop Moon’s bandaged head like a slab of jerky. Moon was dressed in Rudy’s fleece pajamas: too tight, too short. But it was the old revolver in Moon’s hand that froze the two rescuers.
“It’s not loaded,” Rudy said, pushing down Moon’s arm. “My friend here was in an accident. Drove his jeep into the ditch. Did you see it?”
The two men looked at one another then drew closer. A shaft of sunlight coming through the peeled-up RV roof caught across the men’s bellies. The shorter one said: “No jeep. But there’s a tank in the street.”
After the men took Moon away for medical attention, Rudy removed the pinned medal from his shirt front. Moon still wore Rudy’s grandfather’s commendations. Those, along with the helmet, could be a little puzzle for the medical staff to sort out.
When Rudy stepped outside, he again caught the acrid scent of scoured earth. He was glad that he hadn’t brought his siblings’ dogs out with him on this trip. Where could he have kept them safe? Though perhaps they could have been of use now to the first responders, helping to sniff out the trapped and the injured from nearby homes—that sort of thing. Dogs knew what to do in emergencies. Or maybe they didn’t. Rudy was still relearning the truth to things. Maybe, if he released them to help with any search and rescues, the dogs would have taken off instead, crossing over the gully, that imagined river, only to disappear forever into the countryside. Having never learned their original names, Rudy wouldn’t have been able to call them back. Away they’d run, first as a pack, then apart, not yet conditioned to prick their ears to the new names he’d given them since having taken them in, those single words that meant so many things: that they were each needed, wanted, missed. That they should, right this moment, turn back and return to him.