Notes of iron fumed up whenever I ran water at the house in Observation Complex Eight, either because of old pipes or a high concentration of minerals in the groundwater. I couldn’t taste metal in the water in Complex Eight’s laboratory, but that building uses a different supply. Otherwise, the farm is well equipped for a single person mission.
Actually, I enjoy the slight, metallic taste of the water. My analyses of the farmland show a high degree of calcium in the soil from all the limestone in these hills. The rocks burst out of the ridges brushed with trees wherever a creek runs around here. Out across the tilled fields and tall prairie, limestone only peeks up sporadically. Broughton-Randolph Custom Weather picked a lonely corner of the state, hours away from Topeka or Kansas City, but this makes it perfect for product testing because it usually limits casualties.
I tagged it for potential wine country the week that I moved in. When I applied for my first position at BRCW, I had a resume full of short gigs across a variety of industries but when my current contract runs out I will transfer to a winemaking career. My sister, Judy, and I got into wine during a brief stint as French majors in college. She works as a sommelier at the steakhouse her husband, Garrett, manages. Job-hopping and networking left me burned out, so I transferred from the Kansas City labs when I saw that BRCW required a farmer with an applied scientific background and would provide housing.
Most of my personal phone calls go to either Judy or my parents. When headquarters cleared my family for video calls, I showed Judy the view from the observation tower. I hoped that she’d want a stake in the vineyard when I open it.
“You’re so lucky,” she said. “I’d love to look out on that at my job.”
“Patience. You’re all set to see it when you visit this weekend.”
Then came the excuse to cancel. The restaurant staff would be shorthanded that weekend; she and Garrett needed to fill in. I nodded and assured Judy that another weekend would be fine, but my eyes strayed to the black filing cabinet where I would need to store a printout of her third visitation form. Routine procedure. When we decided on an another day, I filled out a PDF and emailed it to headquarters who approved it, as usual.
“You know,” I had one more plea to spring on her, “it’s going to rain pretty hard the weekend that you just scheduled.”
“Christian, I know you read the forecast obsessively,” Judy said, “but that’s the only time we’re free. Also, those forecasts are never one hundred percent.”
Actually, they are. I have the company’s weather lineup memorized, but I couldn’t share with her that I work for the people who schedule the rain. I don’t have clearance to go in detail with my family about the specifics of my job here. In the three years that I have worked for BRCW in some capacity, Judy has never realized how accurate I am.
“I need another copy of that stuff about vines you sent,” Judy said.
“Sure, it’s just an outline of when I want to plant. It all depends on our varietals, although with the limestone around here, we need a Riesling or a Pinot Gris.”
“Boy, it’s a lot of money,” Judy said. “Garrett says he needs to see this place first.”
“We’ll talk more when you come here,” I said. I had a significant portion of the finances covered – money piles up working seventy hour weeks for a year, rent free – but really, my self-imposed exile had grown stale and I wanted visitors.
Outside the corn fields whose status I document everyday, Complex Eight only simulates a farm. No livestock. BRCW policy allows pets, but my fur allergies don’t. A tabby cat snuck in the tool shed where it probably lives on mice. Coyotes laugh and cicadas buzz all night during the summer.
Everything inside the house looked like it had never been used after it walked off the shelves ten years ago, except the computer. The house has a cutting edge computer in the home office. It matches the computers in the tower and the lab. A lighthouse, with a small laboratory in its basement, looms alongside an army of lightning rods over the farm. The house’s hardwood floors creak with the wind, but the tower and the lab – stone, cement, linoleum – never move.
I scraped my work boots on the dirty welcome mat on the ground level of the tower before I entered on my first day. The company had not sent anyone to show me around. Just inside the door, a dozen extra welcome mats sat in a neat stack. The taupe hallway led to a workstation with a big curving desk and three computers. A door in the wall read, “Server Room.” I raided the mini-kitchen and found fourteen TV dinners in the freezer. When I opened a cabinet, coffee leaped out at me and I knocked it onto the floor. The grounds spilled everywhere. I had a master key, so I opened all the doors in search of a broom. In one large supply closet, I found a crumpled sleeping bag and a pillow on the floor.
The company expected me nearby since the schedule ran twenty-four hours a day, but gave me forty-two hours away per week. I didn’t leave much, but occasionally I drove two and a half hours, round trip, to raid a decent wine shop in a middle-sized college town.
Shortly after I walked inside, I asked the Latino cashier to get me a cardboard box. Dust blanketed the air. I wanted something crisp. That metallic water on my brain, I grabbed mostly whites but I paused over the Italian reds. The cashier approached. He thought that I worked for a hotel restaurant with the amount I’d come to buy.
To the best of my recollection, I told him, “No, I live on a farm north of town. I’m working for BRCW and I’m stocking up since I usually have to stay with the crops.”
“Man, there ain’t even too many farms up there,” he said.
“It’s empty now, but in few years, I’m starting a vineyard. We’re taking investors if you’re interested.” I was only sort of joking.
He told me he’d apply for work when it opened. Then he grabbed me a special bottle of Chilean red. He said he grew up on the stuff. I fit twelve bottles in my box and made it home fifteen minutes late, but my truck did not turn into a pumpkin.
My parents called while I was collecting soil and plant samples in the field. The day smelled like young grass, but I expected a thick wall of clouds to roll in at any minute. The other farms and sections that I could see from my hill had full springtime sunshine. Dirt like old newspapers crumbled in my fingers. Meanwhile, my parents happily chirped on about the clear waters of the Caribbean where they’d gone on a fortieth anniversary cruise. Blue sea. White sand. After a few minutes of listening to my parents’ adventures in a Beach Boys song, Mom passed the phone to Dad who had reports of colonial forts enduring hurricanes for centuries. Eventually, he asked about the vineyard.
“I’ll hire you to come home and work,” Dad said. Right now, he and Mom had a neighbor looking after their cattle, just west of Stillwater. “You might save some money in the short term.”
“Well, I don’t really want cattle,” I said. My foot slid into a gravelly patch and jammed against a small piece of limestone.“The land should be great for wine. I can get a manageable loan lined up, and I can still squirrel away some more yet. The land here’s going to have a complete new flavor for the wine – what the French call terroir.”
“I know all about that French terroir crap,” Dad said. “I got it from your sister the last time she visited.”
I didn’t react because I heard the soft clop of rain on my shoulder. Up above me, the clouds formed a nearly perfect square the size of the farm. Cold drops landed on my cheek like quick kisses. The schedule had said that the storm wouldn’t be here for a week, but it had come premature.
“Dad, I have to go. There’s a work emergency.”
I immediately recorded the date and the time. The rain picked up and I tore down through the rows to the wire fence. I tucked my notebook into my shirt to salvage it. Water soaked my hair into eyes. At the edge of my property, the rain stopped. The storm continued over only Complex Eight. I reached my hand through the heavy rain into the dry air over the adjacent section just as if I had reached out of my shower. I snapped pictures of the fence and wrote down my conclusions: early but precise.
The BRCW main office emailed me a thank-you for catching the scheduling error. As I checked my inbox for the first time in awhile I found a request from management, “gently reminding [me] to show discretion about disclosure of potential government secrets in [my] personal time as well as consideration for the global economic ramifications of [my] work.” I read those sentences three times. I wondered if the company thought I was James Bond.
I didn’t sit on it for too long, however. The rain intensified. My patch of sky turned indigo during the the day and black at night. The lab computers’ harlequin array of feedback from the sensors kept me harvesting data late into the night. When I finally needed to sleep, I sloshed through the mud back to the farmhouse with a maglite bobbing along in my hand. Even my boxers got soaked. I know why someone buys welcome mats by the dozen now. In the morning, I combed through more stats and I got drenched again when I returned to the house to eat lunch. I stuffed a backpack with dry clothes. Then, I wrapped bread, peanut butter, jelly, crackers, cheese, and the Chilean red wine in plastic grocery store bags and bolted back into the storm. I’d be camping in the lab.
The dirt-like smell of brewing coffee greeted me when I got back. I knocked off work after another five hours of number-crunching. When I had free time that evening, I climbed the stairs to the observation tower with my wine bottle and watched my little gray bubble of a world melt as it got dark. I finished the wine much more quickly than I expected.
I checked for a scheduled break in the rain, adjusted by a week, and waited for the pause. My boots scraped an inch of mud onto the truck’s running board. I led a dusty, white tail down the road as I left the speed limit far behind me. I needed groceries and a haircut, too, so I had to move quick.
High on momentum, I walked to the South America section of the wine shop. I did not the see the wine I’d bought last time. A lady emerged from the stockroom. I told her that the last time I’d come here I’d bought a specific wine and asked if they had more.
As though speaking of the dead, she asked, “Are you a friend of Jose’s?”
“Maybe?” I described the guy who sold me the wine, which I wouldn’t normally qualify as a friendship, but she nodded.
“He hasn’t showed up for work in a couple of days,” she said. “I know he’s foreign, and I’m hoping it’s not his visa or something. I’d hate to fire him. But you haven’t heard from him?”
I explained that I only knew the guy as a customer. That day, I left with another dozen wines, but not the one that Jose sold me. With wine, groceries, and short hair, I sped back to Complex Eight. I passed field after field full of milo and wheat and was wondering how much of my salary comes from the Department of Agriculture subsidies that BRCW gets when I remembered that I had been talking work with this Jose. The security email replayed in my head.
A thousand questions followed. So, had this clerk been a spy? I panicked briefly as I wondered if I might get fired, but then realized it would have already happened. When I got home I deleted my Pinterest and Instagram accounts immediately.
“Could you come here?” Judy’s voice crackled. Reception sucks in the lab. “Come see the restaurant. Eat filet mignon. Our treat.”
“No, I used up my free hours getting groceries.” A lie. “Besides, it’s going to rain and we need that data.”
“It will not rain,” Judy shouted. “I bet it’s clear. You can drive here and be back to your plants in a day. Garrett and I have people counting on us.”
“If it’s going to be so clear, you shouldn’t have any trouble making a day trip yourself.”
It drizzled on the day that Judy and Garrett’s minivan pulled up to Complex Eight. I waited and drank coffee that tasted like a chest cold. Their wheels creaked through a road of wet cement before the headlights finally dimmed and my sister rushed into the house. Judy passed the mudroom in a single bound and nearly knocked over my mug when she hugged me.
“See, Christian, we haven’t abandoned you. Give me the tour!”
We both pretended that we hadn’t fought about this weekend as we walked through the foursquare kitchen, laundry room, bedroom, living room, and finally upstairs to the office. Judy lectured me on how I needed to dust, though she complimented me on how the clean I’d kept the house. I only came there to do laundry anymore.
Garrett followed in at a reasonable pace. I shook his professional-kitchen-scarred hand. He apologized for having to bail so often.
“We’ve got longer wait times than ever,” Garrett said. In the same loud whisper that he used when recommending a new dish, he added, “If I could get my boss a good deal on wine in a few years, he’d be over the moon.”
“Let’s see this farmland,” Judy said. She glanced at my umbrella and jacket hanging by the door. “Mr. Almanac here’s all ready for rain.”
“It’s supposed to last all day,” I said, a little too defensively.
A nervous moment became a hilarious one. Garrett rocked back and forth when he laughed. Judy tossed her head and squeaked. The sound transformed the air. Nobody had laughed in front of me in weeks.
I rode shotgun in the minivan while Garrett drove out to the fields. I mined the last few months for conversation topics that didn’t involve work, so I mostly told them about a badger that occasionally showed up in the fields. Judy filled me in on their life: restaurants critics, yoga classes, luminous reviews in the Star, rampant sous chef tantrums, and TV shows binged in the dark insomniac mornings.
I had Garrett pull over on the shoulder of the road by a gate. We squelched past the “For Sale” sign onto the land. The mist that accompanied the rain obscured the hills as I tried to sell Garrett and Judy on the beauty of the country. They huddled under my umbrella as they listened to me explain about the minerals in the soil and how they’d affect the flavor. I thought the land would be perfect for a Riesling.
“Local wines lean towards sweet,” Judy said. “People love their Briannas and Zinfandels.”
“I know, but this would set us apart,” I said. “I’m thinking that some Pinot varieties out here would do well, too.”
“You’ll need a table red if you want to place some bottles in restaurants,” Garrett said. “I like where you’re going, but we’ll need some good blending grapes.”
As I listened to Garrett, I noticed that the rain behind him stopped as quickly as if a faucet had been twisted. I took a few steps back and closed the umbrella. A yellow day poured out around us.
“Of course,” I finally said. “Can I get a minute, you guys?”
Hunched over my phone, I checked my schedule and email for an abrupt switch to a rainless day. I could feel Judy and Garrett watching me even as they took a walk around the field. I couldn’t find any scheduled changes, so I shot an email off to headquarters. I leaned against the fence, staring at the sky, and watched a wall of leaden clouds hurrying onto the horizon.
Then work called.
“Product Development, Christian Maple speaking,” I said.
“Maple, this is Brady from Systems Operations. We just got your email. You are only scheduled for light, constant rain, but that’s not what you’re getting is it?”
“No, this sky looks more tornadic than anything else.”
“Okay, if I were you, that’s what I’d prepare for. Our equipment is showing malfunctions in your area. I’ll call back and update you within the hour.”
By the time we drove back to Complex Eight, the sky had darkened into green and the air had thickened. We ran to the lab; it’s built like a bunker. At the base of the tower, we all scraped our shoes on the welcome mat. Judy kicked hers off as she entered. I had whittled the stack down to four, but Garrett still looked at me strangely for having so many mats. I showed them the kitchen and the work station where they could sit down.
“You’re certain that a tornado is going to appear.” Judy padded around by my desk.
“Honey, can’t you see those clouds?” Garrett asked. “And he was right about it raining.”
“Weather observation is my job,” I said. “I know how the sky looks before a tornado.”
“That’s what you do here?” Judy asked. An empty TV dinner box I’d forgotten about barked under her foot. “That’s why you locked yourself away like a hermit?”
“Hey, the money’s really good.” Now that I looked, I had left trash all over the place. Bags of chips, TV dinners, and other portable non-meals lay strewn everywhere.
“What are all these computers for?”
“Sending data back to the main office,” I said. The summary made my job feel incredibly small.
Garrett’s hands gestured his interruption into this conversation. “Look, Christian, I love you, but if it’s going to storm, maybe we should be going home. I bet if we leave right now, we can beat the weather back.”
My phone rang again.
“Bad news, Complex Eight,” Brady from System Ops said, “a tornado is touching down. Normally, I would not advise you not to leave shelter, but we will pay you time and a half to collect data from the tower. We can try to cut a window for you to see out of, but those instrument readings are most valuable to us. Are you aware of the risks?”
“Yeah. I’ll do it.” Two extra people might as well have been two thousand right then. After I hung up with Brady, I said to Garrett, “Do not drive out of here. Nowhere is safer than this bunker. I’m going up to the tower. I’m sorry, but I have to work.”
Rain had come back in harsh, spiteful jabs. Everything outside the bubble had gone dark. I flicked on a tripod mounted camera and aimed it outside, even though it would only show blackness and most of the data would come from air pressure instruments. The storm had come.
I began to worry when the concrete tower started shuddering in the wind. White fists of hail punched and clattered against the bulletproof glass. If the glass shattered, the wind could probably suck me screaming outside. As far I’d be concerned, that would mean the end of wine and vineyards. Mom and Dad might sue, but I’m certain that the BRCW would have a loophole. The thought occurred to me that my life insurance might not get paid out. Are insurance payments a public admission of guilt? Of state secrets?
The sun came back on. A clear, square hole appeared in the clouds above the precise area of the tower. The hailstones cackled themselves out. Through a window in the storm, I could tape the funnel writhing along the highway near the reservoir. I continued to get atmospheric data from sensors in the fields.
“Jesus.” I smelled good, thick coffee and heard Judy’s voice. She handed me a mug and sat with hers in an extra desk chair.
“Why isn’t raining over us?”
“That’s what the company I work for does.”
“They stop it from raining? Can they start it? Do they build tornadoes, too?”
“They’re not God.” I was so tired that my ribs felt hollow. “Tornadoes are usually tests. Like automakers simulating car crashes. This one’s a fluke. We had light rain scheduled today.”
Judy exhaled as logic hit her. “There’s a schedule. That’s how come you always know the weather ahead of time.”
I let the warm coffee sink down into me. Then, I returned to work. Judy kept me company for a few minutes longer. I could hear her foot bobbing up and down like a rabbit’s.
“You know that a human being could accidentally cause a tornado and you still want to buy farmland?” Judy asked.
I pointed to the window in the sky. “Somebody went out of their way to make sure I didn’t get hurt. In the future, they’ll redirect tornadoes so that they don’t hit anybody’s farms.”
Judy’s face told me she didn’t believe me. She left to join Garrett back downstairs.
After the storm completely passed and we went back to the house, I slept. I heard snatches of an argument in my sleep. Garrett said we had too good of an advantage not to use it. Like leaving a tool in the box. Judy said she didn’t think this could be healthy for me. I zoned out again before they finished. They left shortly after I woke up for good the next morning. After we exchanged unshowered hugs, Judy pressed a paper sleeve into my hands before she jumped in their newly dented van.
“Au revoir,” I said lamely. I slid out a bottle of wine.
I began cleaning up the debris from my fields when I got an email from BRCW thanking me for the extra work. They offered no explanation beyond, “equipment malfunction.”
I stopped burning so many free hours in the truck. Besides, I’ll have more wine than I can drink soon. I’m finally getting to know some of my neighbors. When they ask me what I’m growing out here, I tell them I own a vineyard and that we hope to have a product out soon.
Aaron Heil lives with his wife in Emporia, Kansas, where he works at a library by day, studies for an Master of Library Science at night, and writes during whatever time’s left. His work has appeared in the Cleveland Review of Books, Corvus Review, the Free Library of the Internet Void, and elsewhere. He regularly contributes to The Game of Nerds.