It was two miles from Grandma Claire’s house to the IGA store at the edge of Henderson Falls. The road was a country two-lane running south for a mile and a half, as straight as a Lutheran plumb line, till it met County Road A, which ran due west along the section line between farms, then under the freeway, past the gas station, the Wendy’s, and on into town.
Rhinehart turned out of the driveway, drove just out of sight of the house, and pulled over.
“Why did you stop?” Molly asked.
“Thought you might want to drive.”
Rhinehart climbed out and walked around to Molly’s side. She sat still for a moment. This was a transparent attempt by Rhinehart to be nice and make up with her. She wasn’t ready to make up. On the other hand, she had been asking Rhinehart for months to teach her to drive, and she could hardly pass up the chance when he finally offered it. On yet another hand, she was still more than a year under age, which made driving fabulously illegal. She slid over behind the wheel.
“Okay,” Molly said. “But don’t think I’m done being mad at you.”
“Understood,” said Rhinehart. He buckled in and tossed his orange hat on the seat between them. “Check that mirror before you pull out.”
They traveled in silence. Molly gave the road and the truck her full attention, and Rhinehart intruded with only occasional corrections.
“Try a little more gas,” he said, after the third Sunday driver zoomed up and passed them from behind. “Better gee a little,” he said, when she drifted over the center line.
“The wind is pushing the truck around,” Molly said.
The wind was, in fact, pushing. It was pushing hard, and it quickly became harder. As they took the right turn onto County Road A, a gust lifted the rear end of the truck, and Molly felt the tires chatter on the blacktop. Just as suddenly, the gust passed, and the truck settled deep and shot forward. Rhinehart, who had been adjusting his seat at the time, found himself horizontal.
“Sorry! Sorry!” said Molly, clinging to the wheel. “It’s the wind.”
Rhinehart popped up again, grinning. “Been meaning to fix this chair,” he said. “But I never ride over here.” He leaned up to look out Molly’s side window. “Oh goodness,” he said.
The sky was dark and dragging along the ground. Heavy, wide-spaced slaps of rain were meeting the windshield, punctuated with thick knots of hail that hit the truck and careened away into the air.
“Okay: I’m scared,” said Molly, fighting to keep the truck on the road. “You drive now.”
“You kidding?” protested Rhinehart. “I ain’t getting out in this.”
“Rhinehart! This is not a time for jokes!”
“You’re right, hon. But listen,” said Rhinehart seriously. “We got no time to switch drivers. Look at that cloud over there.”
Molly stole a glance. The sky had gone green, and a stout dark shape was reaching down toward the earth.
Molly screeched. “Rhinehart! That’s a funnel cloud.”
“We gotta make a run for the overpass, kiddo,” said Rhinehart. “I’ll help you steer, but you need to put your foot down and get us outta here.”
As if for emphasis, a tangle of something ropy and green slammed into the side of the truck. Molly stamped on the accelerator.
“Heh heh,” said Rhinehart. “Butch is gonna be mad about his corn.”
Molly wasn’t listening. Her knuckles were blue around the steering wheel, and she was reaching as far into the gas pedal as her leg would go. She tried not to scream every time something flew across the windshield.
“Doing great,” said Rhinehart. “We can make it.” He kept his grip firm on the wheel, as the truck groaned and bucked and bounced against the wind. The freeway overpass was coming up quickly, and Rhinehart threw a quick glance over his shoulder at the twister.
“Yikes,” he said.
“What??” shouted Molly.
“Nothing,” he said quickly. “Here’s the overpass. When we get under there, the truck is going to move around something awful. You jump on the brake and hold on tight.“
Vaguely, Molly was aware of noise. A lot of noise, actually. Noise like a freight train in the bathroom. The rear end of the truck lifted again, and Molly screamed, and then they shot under the freeway.
“Brakes,” said Rhinehart calmly.
A blast of dust and gravel and corn plants preceded them into the tunnel, and half a machine shed slapped them from behind. Molly stood on the brake with both feet as Rhinehart wrestled the steering wheel. The old farm truck threw itself left across two lanes, back to the right, and then it took a full turn in slow-motion, while gravel and hail, corn plants, fence posts, and tin roofing swirled with them. All noise and time stopped as the truck swung round in a silent dervish, before they slammed to a stop against the wall of the overpass. The truck stalled.
Molly was trembling all over. Her teeth chattered, and her hands wouldn’t let go of the wheel. She moaned softly in a high voice.
Rhinehart switched off the ignition, leaned back in his seat, and blew out a long, long breath. He reached under his leg and produced the orange hat. One of its wings stood up straight, but the other was crushed flat. It seemed to be pointing toward the next county. Rhinehart pulled the hat over his head and sighed.
“Well done,” he said at last. “First time driving is always a little scary. Don’t think nothing of it.”
Molly uncramped her fingers one by one. Silently, they watched the rain blowing sideways across the mouth of the overpass, and the mammoth hailstones bouncing crazily on the asphalt.
“Know what I’ve always wondered?” Rhinehart said. “How did they measure hailstones before the golf ball was invented?”
Molly gave this some thought. “Well, you should know,” she said with a smirk.
“True,” said Rhinehart. “But I was just a kid in the 1700s. Wasn’t paying attention, you know.”
Molly smiled. “Nice hat, by the way,” she said.
“You like it?”
“The duct tape is genius,” Molly said.
She settled back in the driver’s seat. For a long time, neither of them spoke.
“Rhinehart?” Molly said.
“You called me ‘hon.’”
“Back down the road, you said ‘you’re right, hon.’”
“Well,” said Rhinehart, staring straight ahead. “It kinda slipped out. I guess I’ve got attached to you over the years. Not really my fault.” He tugged at his hat brim. “Okay if I call you hon once in a while?”
“Yeah, it’s okay I guess,” said Molly. She laid her forehead against the side window and felt its coolness on her skin.
“I . . . um . . .” she said. “I’m sorry about messing with your love life.”
Rhinehart scrunched up his eyebrows. “Nah,” he said. “Time I got over myself, anyway.” He inspected a crack in the windshield with his finger. “I shouldn’t a scared off yer beau there awhile back. Don’t know what gets into me sometimes.”
Molly cocked her head and thought about this for a moment. “I don’t know.” She coughed. “I don’t think it was going to work out with Greggie, anyway. He said some kinda mean things about you at school.”
“Yeah. I mean, as if it’s unforgivable to be a crabby old geezer. . . .”
Rhinehart grinned under his magnificent hat. “Some people,” he said. “No perspective at all.”
The wind died gradually, and soon the rain was a steady, soaking downpour. Rhinehart looked at his watch. “So, you think we oughta get that ice cream, Molly Tea Cup?”
Molly nodded. “We’re in big trouble if we don’t.”