“Cora, why are we here? This has got to be the definition of the middle of nowhere.” Frowning at the stains on the bedspread, Foster plopped down on the lumpy mattress. “And this has to be the skeeziest motel we’ve been to in the past year.” She tucked her arms into her flannel sleeves and tried not to stare at the layers of grime covering every surface. “You hush, and be grateful to have a roof over your head. Some people aren’t that lucky.” Air hissed out of the chair cushion as Cora sat and scooted her seat up to the small table under the small window of the very small room. “And some people don’t have to spend their birthday weekend in misery,” Foster groaned. “Missouri,” Cora corrected, pulling her laptop from the beat-up leather bag she was never without. “Homer, Missouri, to be precise.” “After we find this guy, do you think things will go back to normal?” Foster paused, chewing the inside of her cheek. Since her adoptive father, Doctor Rick, had died in a boating accident five years before, she and Cora had developed their own little routine at home in Portland. Oregon, not Maine. Who wanted to go to Maine? But Foster’s opinion that the West Coast was in fact the best coast wasn’t the point, the point was that her life had been an unending, stressful, semi-dirty (though not in the good, sexy way) road trip ever since Cora had sold Doctor Rick’s fertility clinic one long, long year ago. Since then, not one single thing had been normal.
And Foster desperately wanted her life back. Her home back. Foster felt Cora’s knowing eyes on her and she met her adoptive mother’s worried gaze, adding hastily, “Or as normal as they can be?” “We’ll see. Now quit fussin’! I need to concentrate and you’re giving me a headache.” Mumbling to herself about bothersome children, Cora refocused on her laptop and massaged her jaw absentmindedly. “You really should go see a dentist. With all the chocolate you eat, you probably have a cavity the size of some giant moon crater. Or maybe it’s your wisdom teeth.” Contemplatively, Foster drummed her fingers against her knee. “No, I guess you’re too old for wisdom teeth.
What about—” “Foster, hush!” Foster obliged, holding her breath, willing silent the questions surging behind her closed lips. But she couldn’t hold. Not for long. Not with Cora. With the rest of the world not talking was no problem. Actually, she preferred it that way, and she was pretty sure it made her come off a wee bit bitchy. Well, probably a lot bitchy, but that was only if she went off of what other people told her about herself, and she tried never to care about that. Before she even realized she was speaking the levee had broken and words rushed out of her mouth. “Why are we here, anyway? No one stops in Tornado Alley unless they have a death wish.” Thunder cracked, rattling the thin glass of the cheap wall sconces.
“See! I told you. I mean, that would have been perfect right on cue like that if it wasn’t so freaking ominous,” Foster said, slinging her backpack over her shoulder as she headed toward the door. “Let’s get out of here.” “Calm down, child.” Cora’s tight dreads skimmed her shoulders as she shook her head. “There’s a hospital just up the road a ways. Saw it when we drove in.” She took a deep breath and kneaded her left shoulder in the same automatic way in which she massaged her jaw, almost like the action was as necessary yet thoughtless as brushing your teeth. “I know they’ll have a basement, and if this storm whips up a tornado, we’ll head over there. Until then, sit down.
Your teenage angst isn’t helping me get through this any faster.” “It’s not angst,” Foster murmured, picking at the plastic faux wood finish of the table. “I just thought we’d be doing something cooler for my birthday. I only turn eighteen once. I kind of, I don’t know, wanted it to be special.” She pooched out her bottom lip and batted her impossibly long eyelashes. Cora glanced up at her and snorted. “Try again.” She turned her attention back to the computer, her deep-henna eyes reflecting the brightly lit screen. “What if we can’t get to the hospital in time because of the wind and the hail and the rain and whatever?” Cora sighed.
“Every thunderstorm does not produce a tornado. If it did, there’d be nothing left of the middle of the country.” “Like there’s anything here now. And look,” she tossed her backpack onto the table and dug through its unorganized contents. “Storms have been changing, especially major storms. And I can prove it. Check this out.” Peeling off a crusty ketchup packet, she handed Cora a wad of crinkled papers. “And what am I supposed to do with that?” Her thick eyebrow lifted with the question. “It’s research.
For that science project you gave me. I chose weather patterns. All the other options were ridiculous, like breeding gnats. I’m not some insect sex voyeur, and no one wants more of those.” “So you’ve been doing schoolwork?” Cora peered over each of her broad shoulders. “What did you do with my Foster? About this high,” she held up her hand until it encompassed Foster’s five-anda-half-foot frame. “Bright red hair, and skin like a snowman’s. You seen her?” Her pearly teeth gleamed as she laughed. “Very funny.” Foster flipped through the papers she’d printed at their last library stop.
Red and orange blotches covered the Midwest’s weather map along with alarming statistics for the month’s tornado touchdowns and sightings. “I’m serious though. Weather.com says some pretty scary stuff about the likelihood of a thunderstorm causing a tornado. Guess global warming is finally biting us in the ass.” A clap of thunder raised goose bumps on Foster’s arms. “Right on cue. Again. You can’t tell me that wasn’t totally freaky.” She shoved the papers into her bag and slung it over her arm.
“We should go.” Cora’s plump fingers feverishly worked over the keyboard. “I heard thunder. Again. We need to leave. Come on.” Foster’s pleas remained unanswered. “Cora!” She stomped her foot, and a ring of dust sprayed out of the carpet, making her sneeze violently. “Dammit! What, Foster? What do you want?” Cora’s bark intensified as thunder rolled overhead. Foster sucked in a sharp breath, her demeanor hardening as she fought off the lump forming in the back of her throat.
“Nothing.” Her voice was quieter than she wanted it to be. She cleared her throat before saying, “Never mind.” Cora softened, and leaned across the table to grab Foster’s hand. She squeezed it gently before dropping it to rub the side of her neck. “I’m sorry. I’m stressed, and real tired of this ache in my neck. These motel pillows are wreaking havoc…” she trailed off, an expression passing over her features that Foster couldn’t quite read. “But I shouldn’t have yelled at you,” Cora continued, the spicy calmness returning to her voice, creamy and rich with a little kick, like Mexican hot chocolate. “You’re not from around here, and I understand you’re nervous.
I grew up in Tornado Alley. Storms happen. Plus, it’s the end of August. Tornadoes in Missouri like spring and early summer more than late summer and fall. We’re safe.” “Promise?” “Cross my heart. You know you’re my baby, and I’d never put you in danger.” “Cora, I’m eighteen. You’ve got to stop calling me your baby.” “Child, I don’t care if you’re eighty.
You’ll always be my little strawberry baby.” “Oh, god. Fine, call me baby, just don’t call me ‘little strawberry baby.’” “We’ll see,” Cora muttered, already distracted by her computer again. “I guess we’ll see’s better than ‘Child, I’ll call you my little strawberry baby till they put one of us in the grave.’” She mimicked Cora perfectly. “I’ll take what I can get.” Foster’s unease quieted and she slipped into the chair opposite the stout woman. Even though her gut was roiling in time with the approaching storm, Cora’s words soothed her. Her adoptive mother had never gone back on a promise.
She’d been there for her since the day Foster was born, premature and on life support in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Her birth parents had told her stories about her “aunt” Cora, the selfless nurse and hero who’d been there every day making sure she’d grow up healthy and strong. Foster’s heart squeezed with the memory of her parents. “Hang on, you said stressed. Why are you stressed?” she blurted, not wanting to think about the past any longer. “Because if I’m right about who we’re meeting tonight, our whole world will change.” “Wait, is this the guy? The one we’ve been searching for for the past year? You didn’t tell me you’d found him. Who is he? What’s his name?” Ignoring the questions, Cora pointed to her suitcase. “Go over there and grab those two maroon sweatshirts.” Foster trudged to the rusted luggage rack and unzipped the suitcase.
She held up the thick sweatshirt and pointed to the gold lettering: HOMER HIGH SCHOOL PANTHERS. “I thought homeschooling was going fine. And I can learn a lot more from you than from a crappy backwoods public school. And I graduate this year.” “Give it here.” Foster tossed Cora the sweatshirt, and she pulled it on before explaining. “You’re not going there. You’re just going there. Now put that one on. I don’t want to be late.
” Foster zipped the baggy sweatshirt up over her flannel and rolled up the bottom a few inches until the frayed edges of her shorts stuck out and she no longer looked half naked. “I look like a plum,” she grumbled, frowning at her reflection in the dusty mirror. “But at least I don’t have to go back to high school.” Not having to go back to a traditional school had been the only positive outcome of Doctor Rick’s untimely death. Cora wanted to finish his research and keep Foster close—something about the healing process that one of Cora’s doctor friends had told her. Whatever the reason, Foster didn’t care as long as she didn’t have to return to the mind-numbing day care they called public school. Frizzy strands of fiery red hair flopped against her forehead, and she smoothed them back into her messy topknot. “So this person we’re meeting,” she began as she smeared ChapStick over her lips, “is he one of Doctor Rick’s former lab assistants who’s now a washed-up old science teacher or something?” Cora slung her satchel over her shoulder and checked her phone. “Let’s go. It’s starting soon.
” Foster slipped the ChapStick tube into her pocket and turned to Cora. “Has anyone ever told you that you look like Kerry Washington?” She rubbed her lips together and smiled her most innocent smile. “No, because I don’t.” The front door creaked as Cora opened it, and the room filled with sticky, cool air. “Now get your skinny white butt into the car.” Foster sauntered to the door, pausing in front of the stocky woman, her cinnamon and cedar scents tickling Foster’s nose. “Who are we meeting?” A familiar tingle pulsed within her as she spoke. Cora rested her hands on her hips. “When I see fit to tell you, you will know. And we’ve talked about that little trick of yours, Foster.
Be careful how you use it.” “I still don’t get how you know about my Jedi mind trick.” She hopped out onto the sidewalk and drew an imaginary lightsaber. “There’s no such thing as Jedis, and I’m too damn smart to fall prey to your neuro-linguistic BS.” “No such thing as Jedis?” Foster powered down her lightsaber and hooked it on her belt loop. “Broken my heart, you have. Ruining my childhood fantasies, you are.” Cora pursed her lips. “Mmm, mmm, mmm. Strange, you are.
Dorky you shall always be.” “Was that Yoda-speak? Your training is coming along nicely, young Padawan. And speaking of training, are you going to drive to wherever it is we’re going?” “No.” Cora unlocked the car and Foster slid into the driver’s seat. “And I don’t need training. I know how to drive. You’re just better at it than I am—all Evel Knievel–like.” “You know I don’t know who all these old people are that you talk about.” Foster started the car and waited for Cora to punch the address into the GPS. “But unlike some people, I’ve been practicing.
” “Yes, I’d say you practice driving every day and I practice sleeping right here in this seat every day.” “No, not driving. My Jedi mind trick. I made a whole rose bloom outside of that restaurant in Pennsylvania.” Foster pulled out of the parking lot, catching Cora’s suspicious glance as her gaze swept from her adoptive mom to the navigation screen. “Okay,” Foster conceded, watching the vast, cow-dotted fields fade into the distance as they drove closer to town. “Maybe it just grew a tiny bit before it stopped listening. Oh, but I did get those clouds in West Virginia to look like giant Peeps. I was trying to make it rain, but shapes were all I could get. Remember that?” “I remember the car’s air conditioner going out and us cooking in here.
You could’ve swam in this car I was sweating so much.” “Yeah,” she laughed. “That was pretty nasty.” Thunder rumbled overhead, and Foster let it pass before continuing. “I know there’s something out there that will listen one hundred percent of the time. Maybe not people, or flowers, or the clouds, but there’s something. I just have to find it.” The car jostled as Foster flipped on the turn signal and pulled into a large field. She parked behind a giant Ford truck and turned off the car. “We’re here.
” Tall grass tickled Foster’s bare ankles as she stepped out of the car and onto the makeshift parking lot. “Wherever here is.” “Go Panthers! Woo!” A gaggle of maroon-clad girls squealed as they jogged past. Foster craned her neck to peer around the monstrous truck. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” She shot an annoyed glance at Cora. “A football game. Seriously?” “Seriously.” Cora pulled her bag out of the backseat before locking the doors. “Now, kill the attitude.
I’d like to try and make a good first impression.” “Ugh,” Foster groaned, trudging behind her as she tugged at the ridiculous sweatshirt. “But it’s going to rain.” She tilted her chin toward the sky and studied the swollen, charcoal clouds. “And quite possibly tornado. The sky’s all sick-looking and green.” “I’ll get you whatever you want from the snack bar,” Cora offered. “Snack bar? Well, why didn’t you say there’d be food?” With a little more pep, Foster looped her arm through Cora’s and headed toward the stadium entrance.