Fortunately, the hospital wasn't far from the park. Valerie drove Corncob to the ER and somehow talked the nurse into letting them see Michael once the doctors were through with him. Michael lay in bed with the sheets pulled all the way up to his chin. A clear plastic tube ran under his nose, and he stared at the ceiling.
"You okay, Michael?" Corncob said.
"No, Cornelius," Michael said, "I am definitely not okay. If I were okay, I would not be in the hospital with heat stroke now would I?"
"I guess not."
Valerie clucked her tongue. "You look better now than when they put you in the ambulance, if you ask me." Corncob winced as he saw Michael gather a breath for a scathing retort, but Valerie cut him off. "Corncob here is just concerned for you, that's all.
"He's fine," Corncob said. "If he were in trouble, he wouldn't be this ornery."
Michael clenched his jaw and stared back up at the ceiling. "I'm so overjoyed by you both coming in here to offer your well-wishes. I can feel my strength returning, buoyed on by your outpouring of sympathy and understanding."
"Don't mention it," Corncob said.
"How'd your..." Michael's eyes flicked to Valerie, and he swallowed. "How'd your barbeque go?"
Thunder cracked and echoed outside the window. Valerie stepped around the bed to take a look.
"Well boys, on the bright side, you can wait out the storm in here."
"I thought it wasn't supposed to rain today," Corncob said.
Valerie gave him a sad smile. "The weather around here doesn't follow any of the rules I was ever taught. Maybe it's because the town was founded by witches."
"Pardon?" Michael said, sitting up.
Valerie laughed, waving a hand. "Just a joke. Legend has it that the town was founded by a coven of witches who were run out of Appalachia. They danced in circles and sacrificed animals to the local spirits for good weather. I think it was just a rumor started by men jealous of women homesteaders' good luck to happen across a particular microclimate that made farming successful year in and year out."
"Micro-what?" Corncob said.
"She's a weather lady," Michael said.
"Ex-weather lady," Valerie corrected.
"Sorry." Michael said.
"So what are you now?" Corncob said.
Valerie shrugged and looked back at the clouds rolling in. "I don't know. Today I'm the one who spent months organizing a community event that's about to get swallowed up by a storm. They cut my budget in half and still had the audacity to demand none of their favorite events change. Somehow they'll blame all this on me, I'm sure."
"You organized the events this year?" Michael said
She nodded. "Last year too."
"The race too?"
"Yes, though it's mostly just following what was done in years past, with a few modifications. Most of my job was planning the logistics. "
Michael leaned forward, and was caught up short by his oxygen tube. He tore it off in annoyance."So do you know why the race snakes through town the way it does?"
"It's always been that way, as far as I know. It used to be called the Dust Devil Sprint, because it spiraled from the center of the town out. Last year, I convinced the board to run the course the other way to we wouldn't have to bus the racers back to the park. Saves money that way."
"Was this about the same time you lost your job at the station? When the weather started going all wonky?"
Valerie pursed her lips and folded her arms. "I guess it was, why?"
"First, answer me this: which way do tornadoes spin?"
She shrugged. "Counter-clockwise, normally."
"Wouldn't it be strange that year after year, tornadoes unexpectedly veer away from a town that runs a footrace clockwise through town, but suddenly find themselves attracted to the town the race is run counter-clockwise?" He looked at Corncob.
"I don't follow," Valerie said.
"Oh my god, they reversed the polarity," Corncob said.
"What?" Valerie said, looking between Michael and Corncob.
"Reversed polarity," Corncob said. "Like winding a wire around a nail to make an electromagnet. Wind it one way, the magnetic field runs north-south. Wind it the other way, and the field will change to south-north. Except instead of electrons, we have humans. And instead of repelling storms..."
"It attracts them," Michael said.
"What are you two talking about?" Valerie said.
"That would explain part of it," Michael said, ignoring Valerie. "but what's acting as the battery?"
Corncob's face screwed up in thought, then went slack. "How about two hundred pounds of burnt meat?"
Michael fell back into the bed. "The barbeque."
"The barbeque," Corncob said.
"The barbeque?" Valerie looked between them and started edging for the door.
"Valerie," Michael said, "we need to stop the barbeque competition."
"Because it's acting as an animal sacrifice of Babylonian proportions."
Valerie ran into the hallway, shouting for a nurse. Corncob shrugged, jammed a chair under the doorknob and helped Michael through the window, turning his head as the skinny man's backside poked through the hospital gown.
"Why didn't we take the car?" Michael said. "You can hotwire one with a thought."
Corncob shook his head and took Valerie's golf cart over a curb into the farm equipment dealer's back lot. "Convincing those new-fangled anti-theft ignitions into giving up takes too long. Besides, all the roads are still closed because of the race course."
"At least we would be dry," Michael said.
The hot rain came down in torrents, plastering their clothes to their bodies while drops ricocheted from the pavement. Thunder crackled for several seconds before the sky lit up with a flash, like a glacier breaking apart and falling into the sea. Michael squinted at the sky and counted three funnel clouds creeping towards the ground.
"Where are the sirens?" Michael said.
"You think she called the cops on us?"
"Not the police, the ones for tornadoes."
"Maybe they got cut from the budget too."
"Cowboys," Michael spat.
Corncob drove on through parking lots and front yards until they reached the park. What few people remained were already heading out in their cars. The barbeques sat abandoned, though black smoke poured from their chimneys. Michael brought his left hand up and peered at the scene from between his middle and pinky fingers. Lines of mystic energy arced from each smoker, meeting somewhere in the clouds above the park. The sky seemed to twist and pull where the lines came together.
Corncob brought the cart to a skidding halt at the nearest smoker. He jumped out and jerked on the lid's handle.
"Get that meat out of there!" Michael said.
"It's stuck tight!"
"Can you talk to it?"
Michael concentrated, and his jerked his hand back as if burned. "It's not listening to me, and too stupid to fool."
"Try the next one!"
Corncob ran and slid to the next pit, trying at the handle with no success. He threw his weight behind the effort, only managing to tip the smoker over. Michael looked around, sparing a glance at the approaching funnel clouds.
"Wasn't there a fire truck here?" Michael called out.
"Gone now," Corncob said.
"They have a fire extinguisher at the pavilion?"
"That'd take too long, and anyway the fire box is sealed too."
"What about towing the rigs into a pond or big puddle?"
"With what, a golf cart? The only vehicle around here is that old delivery truck, and I doubt it has a hitch, four-wheel drive, or enough rope to tie all these barbeques together."
Michael squinted at the truck, parked behind the pavilion's kitchen entrance. He turned to Corncob.
"Think you can hotwire it?"
"It's old enough to be a simple ignition. Doesn't look too hard from here."
"Okay, go grab all the condiments, coleslaw, and baked beans from the pavilion and meet me at the truck."
Corncob opened his mouth to argue, but then shut it and nodded.
The truck's windshield wipers needed replacing. No matter how fast they swept the glass, Michael's vision was filled with rain splatter. Country music blared from the radio that didn't seem to have an off switch. In the truck's mirrors, one of the funnel clouds touched down, a long and skinny cone the color of sand. Michael maneuvered the truck to the 5K's finish line then floored the accelerator.
"Start tossing!" Michael called over his shoulder.
Corncob took a five gallon pail of coleslaw and slung the contents out the back of the truck.
"Keep it coming!" Michael said. He squinted through the rain, looking for the race course flags stuck in the ground. "Turning!"
Corncob was thrown to the side, losing his grip on a gallon of mustard, which splattered on the pavement.
"You need to make that last, Corncob!"
"You need to watch your driving!"
"This truck handles like a pig!"
"Don't hurt its feelings."
Michael muttered a 'sorry' at the dashboard, and looked for his next turn.
"Beans away!" Corncob said, ladling beans with an oversized-spoon.
"Turning," Michael called out.
At the drugstore, Corncob tossed macaroni and cheese. Potato chips decorated the bank's drive thru. Florence Chapman's back yard and carport had a trail of mayonnaise leading onto Fourth Street. The high school football field was littered with pickle chips from sideline to sideline. Chopped onions sprinkled the road from the tractor supply store to the outskirts of town. By the time Michael stopped at the 5K starting line, Corncob was down to tossing sugar packets and tea bags.
Michael looked up. The tornado had disappeared, as had the other funnel clouds. The rain had calmed to a mere drizzle. He smiled, then lay on the pavement and closed his eyes.
"Come on Mike," Corncob said. "They'll all be coming out soon. Best we get out before."
"It's 'Michael' as you well know, Cornelius. You'll have to carry me."
"In an open backed hospital gown? Forget it."
Michael opened his eyes and grabbed at Corncob's offered hand. He stood and held onto Corncob's arm for balance.
"What'd I tell you, Corncob? Bunch of cowboys, going around changing what ain't broke."
"Wasn't their fault their town was founded by a coven of witches with a knack for disguising weather control ceremonies as summer festivals. Could have happened to anyone."
"Maybe. Let's hope Mortimer can send someone down to make sure next year's plans are a bit more mundane."
Corncob helped Michael step over a puddle of peach cobbler. "Let's hope it's not us. That weather lady would rat us out to the cops as soon as she sees us."
"Ex-weather lady. I don't know, I think I could win her over."
"That's the heat stroke talking, Michael. Lucky for us, your instincts on countering the spell worked. Who knew the spirits could be vegetarians?"
"I don't know," Michael said as Corncob held the car door open for him, "Maybe after all these years of barbeque, they just had a hankering for salad."