Lincoln & Tania Hunsucker - Highway 50 into Cottonwood Falls
The singing of squeaky hinges echoed from the chassis of a 1984 Dodge B van
as it sped down I-35 from Kansas City. The driver's right index and middle finger lazily drummed on the linen wrapped steering wheel to the tune of Kansas's 'Questions of my Childhood'. Below his smudge covered aviators bounced a long hand rolled cylinder of peace and love as he mumbled along with the lyrics. The driver's long brown hair blew behind him with trails of smoke furrowing through it. The smoke then flew into the back of the van
affronting a teenage girl just trying to listen to her i-Phone. In the rearview mirror her father could see her legs reaching up the ceiling. From his view he could tell she was wearing her boots and pressing them into the cotton cloth lined ceiling of their main home. He scoffed loudly as he stared at her. Looking back to the road he raised his left hand to clasp the joint in his mouth. With one long inhale he removed the joint from his lips before turning into the backseat to release the massive cloud from his lungs. The teenager in the backseat dropped her boots to the floor as she sat up on the extendable bed that filled the width of the back. Her father immediately turned his head back to the road, nonchalantly ashing out the window. She threw him a disapproving look through the mirror as he replaced the joint in his mouth.
He mumbled something through the filter in his mouth about an ungrateful brat which prompted his daughter to remove a single earbud. He mumbled again but this time even less intelligibly in an attempt to goad her on. The other earbud dropped as her lips mouthed to him what must have been a slew of spanish slurs. He placed his left hand on the wheel then raised his right over his shoulder to wave his daughter to him. She slipped off the edge of the bed to begin shuffling her way to the shotgun seat. With the vehicle bouncing around the road her legs had a hard time maintaining balance. Ahead in the road a rather large pothole could be seen coming into view. A small twitch in the corner of the drivers mouth crept across his face turning into a devilish smirk. As the pothole fell under his view of the hood he swerved harshly into the middle of the road. A yelp then a thud. He turned into the backseat for a moment then turned his gaze downward. He saw his daughter was now collapsed into a mass against the twin side doors on the right side of the vehicle which prompted from him a hearty laugh.
"Asshole!" His daughter shouted from the ground as she threw a leg up at his face, "The hell are you thinking?!"
"Eaaasy..." Lincoln droned, "Easy, ain't no reason to get upset over a practical joke."
"Tonto blanco hijo de puta madre," Tania spat back rapidly.
"Muy malo," Lincoln repeated as he had many times before, "Soy tonto. Yo se, Yo se."
"Y'know you could've thrown me out the door right?" She sighed as she crawled into the shotgun seat.
"Whaaaaaaaaaaat?" Her father retorted sarcastically, "You think Uncle Allen's Slam Van cant handle your little butt?"
"Awful phrasing pops, just awful..." His daughter replied before stuffing her ears full of plastic.
The above Spanish was just about the length of his knowledge but he certainly understood what his daughter was saying. His former lover, Tania's mother, Maria had constantly berated him in Spanish when they had been together. After a few years together he could figure out the good words from the bad. The pair were good together once but after Lincoln's 15 year sentence the pair grew apart. Eventually hardly speaking except through their shared daughter's letters to the prison. When Lincoln was released his first move had been to try and rekindle their love for one another but too many years had passed. Maria was a changed woman but Lincoln wasnt even the same man. He was hardly even that if you could call him human. The only part of him that reminded her off the young man Maria had known was the letter's he sent their daughter while inside. Seeing him in person with so many more scars, inside and out, she could hardly contain her sadness. After a week together the pair knew they could never be what they once were. That was almost a year and half ago now. At that time Lincoln was struggling to find a place to stay and a job. Without his daughter's help he likely would have wound up once again incarcerated. She convinced him to try to work against the person he normally was for her benefit. After some time Lincoln was managing to make choices like any other adult not always the best but rarely the worst. Only a year ago the father daughter duo made their plans for a great exodus across the states. The poor girl didnt realize what she had signed herself up for then. Tania was right about the phrasing but for Lincoln this vehicle was only one thing. The Slam Van. His brother's previous shack. In the back seat it held a bed, sink, closet and refrigerator then in an above canopy a short cabin that fit a bed. In Lincoln's youth he and his brother had often taken this van on patrol through the streets their hometown. In his mind there was no reason to sacrifice the name of such a legend for his daughter's sake. For Tania it was a chance to get to know her father and take time from her overbearing mother.
While for Lincoln it was certainly a bonding experience he did have ulterior motives. Neither his daughter nor his ex wife knew he was the subject of a manhunt that originated in his home state of South Carolina. His father and eldest brother Morris had recently been put on trial for their involvement in a shooting that took place some months before Lincoln left town. The authorities began their search when evidence came back to support a theory about a third gunmen. After ballistics testing ruling out Lincoln's older brother Allen due to his being confined to a wheelchair they knew to look for a 6 foot tall shooter. There was no further proof than that to substantiate that Lincoln had been there but that was plenty for him. He knew how quick a previous offender like himself would be sent back inside. The father in him refused to allow anyone to take him away from his daughter. Thus his plan. Since then Tania and Lincoln had been from Florida to New York then Virginia to Ohio, next to Tennessee then through Louisiana to Texas. After Austin, TX they made a beeline to Kansas City. In every other town or so in between their destination's Lincoln had tried to find enough stable work to keep Tania and himself fed. It was rare the two went hungry even if it came down to performing some petty theft for a decent bite. The experience for Tania was unlike anything she had ever done before. As the next song on the Kansas' Leftoverture album began playing Lincoln lowered the volume. Looking to his daughter he realized she was hardly paying attention to him but rather staring out the window longingly. As he took another drag the thought crossed his mind of what she was moping over. He pushed out the smoke in his lung and with it the thought that his daughter was unhappy. He reached into the glove compartment as the synths of 'Cheyenne Anthem' began to blare. After pushing some paraphernalia out of his way he found the map the pair were using for directions. Tania happily took the map in her hands removing the red marker clipped on the edge then unfolding it into her lap. Across the eastern coast of the US there were a series of connected dots that formed a misshapen N over half the country.
"Where next Sweet Tea?" Her father said as he removed the joint from his mouth then lowered it in front of his daughter.
She looked up at him from the corner of her eye skeptically. His face was stone cold but she knew behind the sun glasses he had a smile in his eyes. Tania's father was a big fan of narcotics but she herself never saw the appeal of any of them. Maybe it was because her father had spent over half her life in a cell for his involvement. Maybe it was something to do with the general lack of control she felt in general. For her there was little in the world that could convince her to even let him smoke. While she sat there judging him he opened his mouth into a smile that let loose trails of smoke through his teeth. A chuckle escaped from his daughter looking at her father's attempt at a wholesome moment. Lincoln stared and smiled broadly at his daughter waiting on her decision. Their last town had been Topeka where Lincoln had been a security guard for the Kansas Museum of History. Tania couldnt get over how badly her father had managed to get fired. During his time there he had actually made a good go of things. His boss liked him. Lincoln liked the job. Things were good for almost a whole month. The museum granted an old civil war era artillery cannon to the local Rotary Club for their Freedom Festival's reenactment. Lincoln along with two other guards were hired to guard the props. The Hunsuckers looked forward to for the event for some time. It was shaping up to be an opportunity for Tania to meet people her age while Lincoln would be able to prove himself a loyal employee. When the day came Lincoln and the other guards prepared for any and all scenarios. One of the guards had prepared for one scenario where the security team got plastered. As the battle began the three guards began attacking a large cooler filled with beer. After some food Tania gladly took a seat close to the pyrotechnic area where the cannon had been set up. The security guards stuck in their uniforms hung back a little ways from the main crowd but kept their eyes on the cannon. From his vantage point Lincoln could make out where his daughter was sitting then noticed a figure sitting next to her. After a few beers the fatherly instinct in him was provoked by his coworkers jests and jeers towards his daughter. An intoxicated Lincoln tread through the crowd stomping on hands before he plopped down next to his daughter. Tania in a flustered state introduced her dad to the pimple faced youth. Without giving the young man much of a chance Lincoln delivered a torrent of insults. To Tania's surprise the young man came back at him with his own snappy response. Lincoln without any other way of knocking the kid down a peg decided to leave or so Tania thought. The foolish drunken hooligan in him decided to hijack the artillery cannon, aim it into the crowd and discharge a false round. The event made the news within hours of Lincoln being fired. The two piece family removed themselves from the public eye for a bit before leaving town. If only her father hadnt been so brash.
He sat there still staring at the beauty she got from her mother. He could place the one thing she got from him, her nose. Unlike his it wasnt slightly crooked to one side instead a perfect reflection of his nose as a child. While he was staring the vehicle had begun to list of the road a moment. The warble of the buffer line on the side of the road broke his concentration. Quickly he collapsed his right hand around the joint effectively shielding his daughter from the ember then with his left corrected the wheel slightly.
"Maybe you oughta lay off," She replied cheekily, "It kinda reeks in here."
Lincoln chuckled, "Oh you think so do you officer?"
"I'm just saying if we get pulled over I'm not the one going to..."
The ringtone of an android phone interrupted the conversation.
"Well I wonder who that is?" Lincoln said before planting the joint back in his mouth then digging into his pocket with his right hand to produce an android phone, "Oh look."
"Well it is about that time," Tania said as she pulled out her own phone and began drumming her thumbs against it. Lincoln raised the phone to his ear then when he didnt hear anything he quickly looked back down at it. On the screen he saw the green answer button next to the red to decline. He tapped the green button, then again, then finally he thrust the phone in front of his daughter. She looked down at the name on the phone which read 'Heart Breaker' then scoffed at her father. She extended her middle finger then swiped sideways on the green button before throwing a snarky remark.
"Yeah dude," He said mockingly, before greeting his ex lover over the phone, "Hey darlin.' I coulda sworn I was just talking to you. What? I would never... No. I mean yeah but I... Well you'd have to ask her... Of course it did. Some fucking kid... I swear... No I swear to... Woman... I mean Maria...Maria..."
The phone fell into his lap as the screen blinked repeatedly to indicate the call had been disconnected. His daughter looked at him with an eyebrow raised expecting him to begin making his case to her. Instead the ex con let a long sigh fall out of his mouth as he raised his right hand. Lincoln blew on the ember he now held in front of his face before taking a long drag. Tania sat waiting for her father to say something about the phone call as he stared ahead. She laid her hand out in front of her then rolled it through the air causing her bracelets to jingle. Lincoln exhaled then a defeated chuckle escaped as his daughter gestured for him to speak. Lincoln's right hand reached the volume dial on the radio then twisted to the right. As 'Magnum Opus' blared a wave of helicopters flew overhead. Lincoln seemed confused at the sight and almost frightened. He raised his index finger and pointed out the windshield to show his daughter. Before he got the chance Tania's music cut off abruptly causing her to look down at her phone. In the corner of her screen she saw the words 'No Service'. Strange and unbearable timing as now her father was blaring his own music. She found their route on the map and discerned they were on interstate 35 south. The next step was figuring out where they were. She stared ahead searching for a mile marker as the van's CD player continued playing Kansas. Instead of saying something about it she chose to pretend her music was still on to ignore her father. In the driver's seat Lincoln sat fuming over his daughter and her mother's attitudes. He wasnt shocked over how Maria took to the news. He was surprised she had managed to hear about it but then chalked it up to his daughter's doing. Maria had reprimanded him for making his public stunt in full view of their daughter over something a teenager had said. Then for trying to shirk the responsibility onto his daughter. The conversation had been brief but her tone was clear cut disappointment. Then just hanging up on him. Though he knew she wanted nothing romantically to do with him her approval mattered. She stood as one of the only ways he could measure the good man he used to be against the man he was now. After how abruptly the call had ended he was going to make himself content with them not speaking for a while. He knew how she was. His daughter was the main issue. Especially if she was feeding information to her mother about her father's actions. He began devising ways to mess up their communication stream without getting himself further in the hole he dug with Maria. After a moment of thinking he came up stumped. In the corner of his eye he saw his daughter's left hand tracing the map along I-35. He raised his right hand to jab his index finger into the map on the line marked Highway 50. His daughter looked over at him then rolled her eyes before looking forward in the sky seeing the helicopters dissapearing off into the distance. For a moment Tania questioned why a group of helicopters would be flying in formation over Kansas but was interrupted by her father.
"We passed a sign saying Highway 50 West," Lincoln said as they neared four-way stop, "Think next town is Cedar Falls or something..."
"You meant Cottonwood Falls," Tania said after glancing at the map briefly, "No Cedar Falls around here."
"Whatever you say Sweet Tea... Oh..." He trailed off a moment as he watched the sky brighten intensely in the rearview, "Oh my fuck..."
"Dad! What's going on?!"
"I... I uhm..." Lincoln could hardly form thoughts much less words. As the light dissipated he began pressing his foot against the brake pedal. The fatherly instinct in him moved to grab Tania in order to keep her close. The vehicle rolled to a stop then he turned in his seat as did his daughter. The pair sat in awe watching as thick waves of flame and ash pushed against each other trying to claw their way to the top. The joint fell from his mouth as the evergrowing mushroom cloud billowed up into the sky. It sat on his lap burning another hole in his already tattered shirt. As it increased it's insurmountable height it began forming coils of red hot smoke around it's mass. A single halo of fire began to rise then as it crested the top of the cloud it tightened. The smoke atop the cloud billowed out around the crown a moment. For a brief moment the thought crossed Lincoln's mind that the devil was staring at him now. A simple rationalization but one easily reached given the experience. Even as the crown disappeared the cloud furrowed up higher to claim more space in God's sky. Lincoln looked away from the explosion to his daughter. Tania sat with her jaw hung loose and her hand clutching Lincoln's own so hard her nails were beginning to draw blood. Lincoln looked at his hand a moment confused that he had felt nothing. Thinking about it he realized what was happening. Both were in shock. He felt the ember burning a hole in his pants now so instinctively he smashed the remainder of the joint against his leg to kill the flame. Finally breaking himself free of the shock he realized something. Not more than a few hours ago had they woken up in their hotel in Olathe, a small part of Kansas City. He had just woken her then with McGriddles and coffee. Tania could scarcely comprehend the fact that had it not been for her father's folly she would have been there today. She might have been with the young man she met the other day. Tania twitched a moment feeling jarred by the thought. Lincoln sat there a moment watching his daughter before he felt the vehicle rock forward a moment as if from a gust of wind. He looked back to where the cloud stood looming over the flat Kansas landscape. It seemed so out of place here. No government or terrorist faction he could think of had any reason to attack Kansas City. Some new war. The sheer magnitude of such an explosion baffled him but he knew. Only one thing on the planet could do that and it was highly radioactive. Lincoln reached over with his left hand to put the vehicle in park. Afterwards his left hand raised to his right and unhinged his daughters claws from it.
"Hey darling," He said feigning calmness, "I need you to call your mother. That was a nuke, I dont know how far we are but I dont think we wanna risk traveling after that. We're finding somewhere we can shelter up and call your mother."
"There is no signal..."
Lincoln reached into his lap to snatch his phone up then checked to see if he had any signal. Nothing. He groaned in frustration before trying a phone call. The smart phone in his hands was more complicated than a pad lock but he tried nonetheless. After several seconds of clicking he grew angrier. The 'Magnum Opus' still played over the radio which didnt help the ex con's mood. As it began the synthetic crescendo just about halfway into the song Lincoln began to lose his temper. He looked to his daughter and gestured for her to do the same. Tania bewildered for a moment tried her phone in vain. No signal meant no signal. She set her phone in her lap again which primed her father's irate reaction. He grabbed his phone by the corner of the screen and slung it into the radio. The music played still which caused him further anger. He cocked his right hand into a fist next to his shoulder then drove it down into the radio dial. His knuckles cracked the small plastic knob in half and shattered the plastic framing around the radio's display. Lincoln's face twisted a moment before he ran his hands through his hair trying to calm himself. A low growl escaped his lips as he threw his hands over the steering wheel and began shaking the van. He saw his daughter clinging to the side of the door in fear as she had been unprepared for his outburst. He groaned as he relinquished his grip on the steering wheel to step out of the car. As he threw the door open his booted feet ran slammed onto the pavement. He clenched his fists before letting out a long expletive then striking the van door harshly. He walked away from the window Tania watched him from inside. While her father acted out his emotions on the vehicle she tried again to call her mother. Then she tried the number of the boy she had met in Kansas City. No luck at all. She began going down her list of contacts trying each and everyone. Without any signal she couldnt make anything happen. Lincoln laid a booted kick into one of the tires on the side of his van as he stared at the cloud a moment longer. He chuckled. How could things get any worse?
He turned back to the driver side door to clasp the handle. He exhaled, took one deep inhale then exhaled again. He pulled the door open then grabbed the wheel to climbed inside. Tania watched as her father took his seat with a huff then threw the vehicle in gear. As he turned the remaining half of the radio dial their van sped off down the road. It was only a few minutes before he was driving erratically. As he began pushing 70mph he could see a town coming into view over the horizon which gave him cause to pump the break a bit. As a sign came into view on the side of the road he made out the words Strong City. Driving into the town he managed to decrease his speed to just about 10mph above the legal limit. The first building he shot past in the town was a cafe of some kind but in the front window it had a closed sign hung in it. As he looked around the town his hope for a phone seemed to diminish. The next two buildings he passed were unmarked then the next was a Subway with another closed sign. A feed store. A gas station. He pulled into the gas station briefly then realizing it as well was closed sped off down the road. The town itself seemed damn near deserted which made Tania worry if they had missed some kind of evacuation notice. The next place was a rodeo and the next a church. 'God'
Tania thought, 'We're in the fuckin boonies'.
Her father continued to drive like a madman through the rural town. He saw the edge of the town not far ahead. He decided it would be too risky to chance riding to a whole other town with possible nuclear fallout landing around him. Reading a sign that said Cottonwood St. he took a sharp left and began rocketing down the road. He began to pass houses on either side of the road and started to slow down slightly. Eventually the road came to a four-way stop where Lincoln looked both ways then decided to keep moving down the residential road hoping to find someone outside he could talk to. As he drove around he couldnt find a single person on the street. After nearly 10 minutes he came to cross a bridge over a small river. On reaching the other side he seemed to be in a different town. Driving further into the town he could hardly figure where anyone was. On his left he read a store sign that read 'Cottonwood Falls City Shop'. The Hunsucker's stared intently around the streets hoping to find someone as they drove around the edge of the town. Lincoln kept his eyes out the left of the vehicle to spot anyone working while Tania stared out the right hoping to spot someone in the homes they were passing.
"WAIT!" Tania screeched from the passenger seat, "Back up. Right quick!"
Lincoln's foot slammed into the break pad causing the tires to lock and grind against the pavement. He quickly slid the gear into reverse then drew his foot off the brake and onto the gas pedal. As he reversed he looked out the right of the vehicle to see a brick road that led into the residential area. Further down that road he could see a mass of people gathered in the street. Lincoln backed up more then threw the gear shift into drive and began hurtling down the road. The chassis of his vehicle bounced with each of the many imperfections on the road until he slowed down as the houses on either side of him changed into businesses. As the mass of people in the street became more distinct he could hear them. They all seemed gathered around a rather ornate building sitting on a nice spot of land. Lincoln assumed it was either a courthouse or the city hall which would warrant such a gathering. As he cautiously inched his truck closer he recognized the large wheels and cannon tube of a piece of historical artillery. It would have been funny if not for the consideration that the one he had operated just the other day was probably now a few pieces of dust. As the family got closer they could see two men on a stage seemingly poised for a debate of some kind. That brought up a new thought to Lincoln that perhaps the bomb had been totally unannounced. The thought scared him even more considering there could be another strike. Lincoln noticed some of the crowd had begun dispersing. Clutching loved ones and carrying children over their shoulders. His blood began to boil thinking about his daughter sitting there next to him. He didnt know what to do. He wasnt a crisis response guy, he was the crisis cause guy. The best he could think of was to start asking questions. Lincoln looked to Tania then reached into his glovebox to retrieve an object wrapped in a black bandana. As he unfolded the bandana Tania had already begun refusing him but he ignored her. A small .38 revolver with a tape wrapped handle was held gingerly in his right hand before it was placed on his daughter's leg. Lincoln looked at her and nodded as he began tying his hair behind his head. He knew she would be smart enough to lock the doors behind him but he couldnt risk anything happening to her. He stuffed the bandana in his pocket as he checked his breath with the other hand. With a firearm to protect herself nobody would dare touch her. With that thought in his mind he opened the door then made a heart over his chest with his hands before slamming the door and rushing into the crowd of people.
As he got closer to the thick of the crowd he spotted one of the men on the stage speaking to the public for a moment. Lincoln waited long enough to hear him announce the nature of the explosion then after began to ask around if anyone had any cell signal. The first person he spoke to seemed off put by his appearance then kindly told him they had none. He realized he likely looked out of place. Gruffly shaven with hair in a bun, a shirt with holes and a pair of dirty boots stuck to the end of his jeans. All these people here were dressed for a nice day out. Looking around he began asking others and got the same answers. As the scene progressed the crowd became more agitated and he became more frustrated with his situation. He was thousands of miles from home with his daughter in tow surrounded by a bunch of bumpkins panicking. He looked above the crowd around for a moment and managed to see the older gentleman from the stage trying to calm the people down. Lincoln began weaving his muscular frame between the masses of people until he was close enough to hear. More talking of a nuclear strike, people asking absurd questions, some panicking. Lincoln didnt care he needed to know more. As he began to push past a couple some tall man wearing a dark blue flannel stepped in front of him. The man's back was to Lincoln but it clearly was his intent. Lincoln stood straight for a moment then tightened his chest preparing for the guy to say something or something to happen. Nothing did. Lincoln tried to move again but another man blocked his path. This time Lincoln decided to tuck his shoulder and keep walking into the man. When he did so the man didnt resist so much as Lincoln had thought he was going to but instead was easily pushed forward and into the couple Lincoln had been trying to press past before. The tall man in the flannel turned around to look at Lincoln with a bewildered look on his face as thought Lincoln were the problem. Lincoln returned the look more incredulously before looking to the man he'd pushed. This man's mustache could easily have made Wyatt Earp jealous then again so could his manners.
"Who the hell do you think you are pushing around like that?!" The man shouted with his mustache bouncing above his lip, "We're in a state of emergency and you go pushing people?"
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