Rubicon Ranch lay stretched out on three sides of Ward Preminger as he stood on the balcony of his cozy two-story house. As he sipped his coffee, Ward breathed in the early morning air. A tang of vegetation met his nostrils. His neighbor was mowing his lawn and had already trimmed his bushes, trees and shrubs. Ward couldn’t understand the obsession some people had with their yards. He did as little as he could in his own and was thinking seriously of having it covered in gravel with only a few desert plants for decoration. The austerity of the desert appealed to him. He spent as much time out there as he could.
Finishing his coffee, Ward went inside to get ready for work. He had a 30-mile drive to the bookstore in Rojo Duro, the closest town to Rubicon Ranch. Since he’d moved from tornado-ridded Kansas two weeks ago, he’d been working at the family owned store. His boss, Jane Fitzsimmons, and her sister, June, owned the building, which had once been the only hotel in town. One side was a book and gift store, the other a pack and ship center and DVD rental. In between the two, their children ran a coffee shop that also sold music CD’s.
Ward and the Fitzsimmons boys were cleaning and rearranging a portion of the store in order to set up a new display. As they worked, an older man with dark hair, walked into the shop. He glanced at their activity, frowning and mumbling to himself. As no one else was around to assist him, Ward left the crew and greeted the man with a smile and handshake. What he got was a glare. The old man swatted Ward’s hand away.
Ward’s fingers tingled unpleasantly making him want to wash them. Rubbing his hand on his pants, he tried to focus. The old man glared at him. Taking a step closer, his craggy face loomed in Ward’s vision. Thin lips arced in a snarl and spittle sprayed in Ward’s face.
“Don’t touch me! Idiot!” Surprisingly strong, he shoved Ward away.
Another charge accompanied the blow. Ward went flying into a display, toppling books and collectables. Feeling like a turtle on its back, he tried to rise. His arms and legs refused to move properly. Terrified and disoriented, Ward couldn’t speak. His vocal chords worked—he could hear himself grunting, trying to form words. A loud ringing distorted sound.
He opened the door, the air deceptively calm. Finding it hard to breathe, he looked through the gaping hole in the roof. A thick, black wall of cloud spiraled above him. Green lightning slashed across from side to side as smaller funnels ebbed and formed along the sides. The maw of the tornado dipped down, grabbing him. The force of the wind pulled him upward, his body dancing like a crazed marionette. His breathing was labored and he watched helplessly as the green lighting surged toward him from all sides….
Strong hands lifted him, carrying him to the sitting area of the coffee shop. People surrounded him, all of whom should be familiar, but none he recognized. Soon, men in uniforms with starched white shirts came in and took over. Bright lights flashed in his eyes. One of them squatted in front of him.
“Can you hear me? Do you know your name?”
Ward saw his lips move. He heard the man’s voice, but he couldn’t decode the words. Shaking his head, he tried to stop the ringing in his ears. Instead, vertigo slammed into him making him gag.
“He’s gonna blow,” the man said calmly over his shoulder.
Ward felt a plastic rim lightly touch his chest just before he vomited. Blackness descended.
Some time later, Ward woke to an irritating beeping. The room was dim and fuzzy. It took a moment to realize that was because he wasn’t wearing his glasses. He was in a hospital room. The nurse’s buzzer lay near his left shoulder. He tried to raise his right hand to grasp it. The left moved instead, clumsily. Closing his eyes, he mentally reversed the process and successfully depressed the buzzer.
“Yes?” A cheerful female voice answered.
Ward tried to speak, but words wouldn’t form. He grunted, his mouth was dry.
“Yes,” he managed to whisper.
“I’ll be right down.”
A minute later, the door opened and three people walked in, all female. The lead woman came at him with a bright flashlight. Giving him a thorough check, she smiled at him.
“I’m Doctor Clemens, Mr. Preminger. I’m a neurologist. I’m going to ask you a few questions.”
She proceeded to ask his name, the date and where he was. “I need you to squeeze my fingers, Mr. Preminger. Right hand to my left.” She held up her hand, two fingers sticking up.
Taking a deep breath, Ward concentrated on the movement. He sent a mental message to his right hand to take her fingers. To his dismay, his left hand moved. With a groan of despair, he burst into frustrated tears.
“God, not again,” he groaned.
“It’s all right, Ward,” the woman with the water said. “Take your time.”
“I can’t. Don’t you get it? Who was that guy?”
“Which guy?” Dr. Clemens frowned.
“At the bookstore. The one who did this to me.”
“No one did anything, Ward. You had a slight altercation with Morris Sinclair, but he didn’t do anything but shove you,” the doctor replied.
“No. He did something. This is his fault! I’m gonna kill him!” He tried to get out of bed.
The women restrained him, not difficult as weak as he was. The nurse to his left injected something in his IV. “Toto,” he croaked. “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” And darkness descended once more.
Ward was released from the hospital when the MRI came back normal. In a nutshell, they had no idea why his limbs didn’t work correctly. There were no signs of trauma or brain damage.
“It’s like your brain rewired itself,” Dr. Clemens told him. “Maybe when you were caught in the tornado back in Kansas.”
“How’s that even possible?” he grumbled.
“I don’t have answers for you, Ward, I’m sorry. No one’s been through what you have. Your case is unique.”
Ward’s sardonic laugh sounded weak in the echoing hospital room. “Great! I always wanted to be different. Now I am.”
“On the plus side, you’re healthy and strong. Your muscle tone is good, your reflexes superior. Your mental capacity hasn’t been damaged. In fact, as far as we can tell, comparing to cognitive tests you volunteered for in college, your abilities have actually improved.”
“Getting sucked up by a tornado and electrocuted made me smarter?” He chuckled, but it sounded cold to him.
“Something like that. You can function on your own now, so I’m sending you home.” She took his hands in hers, squeezing gently. “It’s going to be all right, Ward. We’ll get you through this.”
Ward nodded, agreeing with her, but he wasn’t convinced.
Jane gave him a few days off from work, so Ward spent much of the day reading. He became obsessed with Morris Sinclair. He read everything the man had written, convinced that by so doing, he could figure out what the old man had done to him. Hardly sleeping and eating very little, he lost weight, his already lean body turned gaunt, his face drawn. Dark circles ringed his eyes.
The doctor finally insisted that he get out of the house and walk around the neighborhood. He took to shuffling about, a rambling skeleton of a man, until he spotted Morris Sinclair. Seeing the source of his obsession, Ward felt mild elation. He hadn’t realized the old man was so close. Morris lived less than a mile from Ward’s house.
Turning abruptly, Ward headed home. His fixation had changed. He’d now made it his goal to exact his revenge on Morris Sinclair.