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'The Breathtaker'

Read this month's Today Book Club selection by author Alice Blanchard.
/ Source: TODAY

When Police Chief Charlie Grover finds three mutilated corpses in a tornado-ravaged farmhouse, his first thought is that the victims were impaled by flying debris. But his instincts tell him something different. Through solid police work, Charlie proves that they were brutally murdered and discovers that their executioner has left a particularly hideous calling card. Yet how could the killer predict exactly when and where a tornado would strike and use it to cover his tracks? Here's an excerpt the month's book club selection, "The Breathtaker," by author Alice Blanchard:

****Warning, the following excerpt contains language that may be offensive to some.*****

Rob Pepper stepped into the cheery yellow kitchen, ready for a fight. “Hey, Jenna, what’s up?” he asked.

Cradling the receiver against her ear, his wife looked at him with a hint of hostility. On the phone, always on the phone. Today she was wearing too much champagne-colored lipstick, a thick layer of moss-green eye shadow glopped sluttishly on her lids. “Be right there,” she said, tipping her head back and blowing smoke into the room.

He glanced at his watch. She’d been on the phone for fifteen minutes now and had missed the beginning of the movie. Spoiling their daughter’s fun. A rainy Saturday afternoon. Popcorn and Jackie Chan. Rob and Jenna had called a truce. They’d promised their daughter, Danielle, that they would stop fighting and just be a family for once. Ha. That was rich. “Who’re you talking to?”

“Rita,” she said.

“Well, say bye-onara to Rita and come watch the movie with us.”

She stared at him blandly. She was using an old cracked cereal bowl for an ashtray and sat on the kitchen chair like a monkey — knees drawn to her chest, those lovely peanut-shaped toes curling over the edges of the red vinyl seat. So sexy-looking in her peach-colored top and vintage jeans with the little holes in them. Rob had fallen in love with Jenna Kulbeck back in the seventh grade. Hopelessly, stupidly in love. She’d been such a slovenly, confused kid; born to poverty. Slutty, even. The school slut—he should’ve known. A girl so tiny he used to imagine he could carry her around in his pocket. She brought out his protective instincts. Shortly after their high school graduation, they’d gotten married on a grassy knoll surrounded by cottonwoods, and about a month later, Jenna had announced she was pregnant. After Danielle came three miscarriages in a row, boom, boom, boom. Three dead little boys named Robert Jr., Victor after her dad and Farley after his favorite uncle.

“So, Your Highness,” he said with as much sarcasm as he could muster, the tension in him mounting, “you figure on joining us anytime soon?”

“Yeah,” she said. “In a minute.”

“You said that fifteen minutes ago.”

She played deaf.

“All right, fine. Be that way.” He opened the refrigerator door and slid a beer out of the six-pack, pried off the cap. It was warm inside the house, humid. Almost tropical. He glanced out the window. The overcast sky was looking ominous. Cauliflower tops, good for the crops. He tossed the beer cap into the wastebasket and left, advertising his disgust with a dismissive wave of his hand. But then, out in the hallway, he stood for a guilty moment and eavesdropped.

“ can never . . . that asshole . . .”

Asshole? Had she just called him an asshole? He peered around the corner and wondered if she was deliberately trying to provoke him. Her hair was dark and soft and came to just below her ears. Her glance fixed dully on her cigarette. She knocked the ash off with a moody finger. Didn’t she care? Didn’t she care about her daughter’s feelings anymore? Rob was beginning to suspect that his wife might be having an affair. Too many mysterious phone calls lately, too many trips out of the house to buy things they absolutely, positively had to have, like peanut butter or toilet paper or TV Guide.

He stood there pawing at the truth. Was it his fault that their marriage was in trouble? Well, yeah . . . maybe. Maybe it was his fault. He wasn’t a rich man. In the spring, he had to get up at 4:30 A.M. to plant the crops, repair the combine and execute his fertilizer program. He worked eighteen-hour days, then collapsed in bed at midnight. Slept like a log. Snored. They hadn’t had sex in a while. Summers and winters were better for sex. Still, why punish Danielle? Why not punish him and spare their daughter’s feelings? With an angry pivot, he walked back into the kitchen.

“Hold on,” Jenna hissed into the receiver. “Now what?”


“Well, what?”

“How about it?”

“How about what?”

“The movie.”

She closed her eyes. Cold. Contemptuous. “I’m on the phone.”

You’re on the rag. “With Rita?”

“Please.” Her toes wiggled independently of one another like the keys on a player piano. “Go away, Rob.”

“Fine. Break your daughter’s heart.”

He could tell by the stricken look on her face that he’d finally gotten through to her. Finally, you bitch.

Back in the living room, he gave his fourteen-year-old daughter an “everything’s okay” smile and sat on the floor in front of the bay windows. Danielle preferred the old wicker chair with its flat, woven arms, whereas Jenna liked to curl up on the sofa and clutch herself as if she were in danger. He twisted his beer bottle into the shag to root it, then watched Jackie Chan do some amazing things with a chair. “Did I miss anything?” he asked.

Danielle rolled her eyes. “Bad guy just tried to kick Jackie Chan’s butt, but Jackie Chan turned the tables on him.”

“Turned the chair, you mean.”

“Ha ha. Funny, Dad.”

“I’m the coolest dad on Planet Earth.”

“Kewl as a ghoul.”

“Pass the popcorn, pip-squeak.”

“Is Mom coming?”

“In a minute.”

She slid him a look. “You guys okay?”

“Yeah, everything’s fine.”

He’d been so busy lately, so worried about his crops, he hadn’t had time to consider his wife’s needs. When you drove a tractor for eight hours at a stretch, you didn’t feel like doing much of anything afterward. Your ears rang, your back ached. If she’d grown bored with the farm, there wasn’t much he could do about it. Many years ago, Jenna in her white one-piece bathing suit used to lie on the carpet in front of him, her tanned back to the cinnamon-colored shag, and point her toes like a horizontal ballerina. She had such slender legs and narrow feet and those flexible toes—long, malleable wraparound toes she would cross and spread apart like the feathers of an opening fan. She would prop her feet on his thighs and fold all ten toes around his penis and work them up and down, stubby and grasping as baby fingers. She could even pick up objects with them—beer bottles and wooden blocks, things as tiny as paper clips.

The wind died suddenly.

Danielle whipped her head around. “What was that?”

He glanced out the window and saw leaves falling out of the sky. He’d developed a Zen-like attitude about the weather. You got what you got. “Thunder and lightning,” he said. “Good for the crops.”

Danielle steadied the bowl of popcorn on the arm of her chair. “Is that the town siren?”

He hit the Pause button. “Oh. That. Remember what happened last time it went off?”

She looked at him. “Nothing.”

“And the time before that?”


“And the time before that? And the time before that?”

She smiled. “Okay, Dad. You’ve made your point.”

“Good. Now pass the popcorn, little one.”

She handed him the bowl, and he glanced around the plant-festooned living room at the worn armchairs, cluttered coffee table, camping gear in the corner, the rumpled sleeping bag on the floor, the soundless clock. It was a little past two in the afternoon, and they had no basement to take shelter in. Another one of his failings, he supposed. Rob Pepper had neglected to provide his family with a basement, right here in the middle of Tornado Alley. What a dope. Maybe that was why Jenna hated him so much. Because of the generations of failure running through his veins. He glanced out the window and noticed that the clouds were moving rapidly across the sky now.

“Hey, Dad?” Danielle’s long red hair was done up in ponytails today, and she looked like a little kid in her overalls and candy-apple-red T-shirt. But she had the same curvaceous figure as her mother, the same heartbreaking radiance to her skin and animation to her slender limbs that would torment every male creature she encountered from this point onward. “It’s getting positively weird out there.”

He touched the lip of the beer bottle to his front teeth and listened to the rush of wind. The air was humming like a tuning fork. Maybe Jenna was right. Maybe his whole problem was that he didn’t understand anything. He got up and walked over to the bay window.

Outside, the clouds were whirling and twisting together, and the wheat waved and rippled. He stared at the boarded-up house across the street where nobody had lived for many years. The front door was flapping open and shut, as if a parade of ghosts were heading for the hills. The Peppers lived at the tail end of Shepherd Street in Promise, Oklahoma, just about the loneliest place on earth. There was nothing around for miles but winter wheat and circling hawks, rattlesnakes and a highway sorely in need of repair—a highway that took you either south to El Reno or north into Munchkinland.

“Dad?” Danielle was tugging on his shirtsleeve, a hint of wildness in her eyes. “Holy cow, this is major!”

He followed her gaze and noticed the funnel cloud reeling across the wheat toward them. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up and screamed. The funnel was miles away but rushing toward them fast, heaving surges of dirt into the air. They had to seek shelter immediately. He wouldn’t have time to free his livestock.

“Jenna,” he yelled. “Get your butt in here!”

“Mom?” Danielle wailed.

She met them in the doorway, looking flustered as hell. “What is it? What’s going on?”

“A tornado,” Rob said, “and it’s coming up fast.”

“You’re kidding, right?” She headed for the front door, but he yanked her sharply back inside. “Ow!” Her hands groped for him, fingers twitching. She had long, sharp nails, and he let her go. “Don’t grab me like that, you asshole!”

“Mom,” Danielle pleaded, looking at her parents with the concern of a child whose emotional range and maturity had somehow far outstripped theirs.

Jenna stood rubbing her arm, nursing imagined wounds. Her eyes grew soft in her rigid face. “Let’s get in the bathroom, quick!” she said.

“No, wait,” Rob told her. “We want to be in the center of the house . . . not the southwest corner.”

“You’re supposed to get to a small, windowless room on the first floor . . . like a closet or a bathroom.”

“Don’t argue with me, Jenna. That corner of the house is gonna buckle first.”

Her eyes seemed sunken, cautious.

“Front hallway. Now!”

They kept a flashlight in the chest of drawers supporting the TV set, and Rob clicked it on. A clatter of wind blew the window shades into the room. He snatched the cushions off the couch and scooped up the old sleeping bag. Covered in cat hairs, it made him sneeze. He’d read somewhere: Old blankets, quilts and mattresses can help protect you and your family against flying debris.

The three of them met in the front hallway, where he made a nest out of the cushions and sleeping bag, then Danielle folded herself down into it with her chin on her chest, while Jenna wrapped her arms protectively around her.

“Be right back,” Rob said, bounding up the stairs.

The second floor groaned like a person in pain. Some of the upstairs windows were open, and he found himself trapped in a strange eddy of currents. Rooted to the spot, unable to move. What was that noise? It sounded like a hundred helicopters hovering above their white frame house, banking this way and that. For a few terrifying moments, this strange air current tossed him about like a tree swaying in a gale, and then, abruptly, it released him.

With a burning sensation in his chest, Rob hurried down the hallway into the master bedroom, where he tore the covers off the bed, grasped the polyester mattress by its thin elastic handles and lugged it off of the box spring and onto the floor. Then he paused to rummage through the big oak dresser for his brown billholder with all their credit cards and insurance papers inside. He tucked the billholder into the waistband of his jeans, then dragged the mattress down the stairs.

Back in the narrow front hallway, he propped the mattress diagonally against the wall, and the three of them hunkered together inside the crevice. He wrapped his arms around his wife and child and waited. There was nothing softer in this world, he thought, than his daughter’s gentle breathing.

“Shit!” Jenna fiddled with the radio, getting nothing but static across the dial. “C’mon, talk to us . . .”

Rob crouched over them in that pitiful excuse for a hallway and met her angry gaze. Her mouth was stitched shut, as if this were somehow all his fault. Go ahead, blame me. He realized he was no prize with his eccentric nose and out-of-date pants, but he was a good provider, dammit. She should be thankful.

“Where’s Bullette?” Danielle suddenly asked.

“Shh, honey. Cats are smart. He’ll find himself a good hiding place,” Rob told her.

As if on cue, above the rattling windowpanes, they could hear a plaintive meow.

“Bullette!” Her eyes filled with hot, terrified tears. “Daddy, go save him!”

“Shh, we have to stay put.”

She began to weep convulsively, and Jenna stared at Rob over their daughter’s quaking shoulders, a sodium stain from the flashlight playing across her grim features. “Go get the cat,” she said.


“Bullette!” Danielle screamed, her fist jerking to her mouth. “Daddy, go help him!”

Oh great. Just by doing nothing, he’d drawn the full weight of his wife’s displeasure. Before she could get really vehement about it, he gripped the long-handled flashlight and crawled out from underneath their makeshift lean-to.

Almost instantly, a bitter chill engulfed him. Goose bumps prickled his arms as he swung the flashlight in an arc across the thin-legged mahogany mail table his grandfather had built nearly fifty years ago; past the wooden coat stand choked with rain slickers and the old picture frames clattering against the faded wallpaper. All he could hear was the wind, thunderous and cascading.

Get the cat. Ridiculous.

He crawled along the hardwood floor on his hands and knees, moving like a poorly wired robot toward the kitchen. The thunder sounded strange—no rolling echo, just a thick-throated boom. Boom. Abrupt, like bombs dropping. The air was a swift current, hard to maneuver through. Jesus, help me. He crawled past the hallway chair with its stout oak legs and shone his light around the corner into the kitchen.

The calico cat was crouched in the crevice between the stove and cabinet. Rob could see its glowing eyes.

“Here, kitty . . .”

The cat tensed and stared at him. Blink.

“Here, kitty!”

It shuddered.

“C’mere, you mutt!”

It arched its back and fled.

“Fuck.” Rob craned his neck, nerves raw, then heard a crackling sound, distantly sinister, and a thunderous bang that made his whole body quake. He covered his head just as glass shattered above him and a violent wind came rushing in. Screaming in his ears. Swirling up into his face. The seconds ticked past heavily. When he finally raised his head again, he could see a massive tree limb sticking in through the kitchen window. “Jesus Christ,” he said, watching the tattered curtains dance. It was like being inside a vacuum cleaner, the pressure building in his ears. The wind rocked the refrigerator ever so slightly back and forth, and he aimed his light into the four corners of the room, but the cat had vanished. Screw the cat. He turned and noticed a handful of nails embedded in the wall near his head, the sight of it tightening the springs of his tension.

“Rob?” came Jenna’s distant cry.

An unraveling roll of toilet paper skittered across the floor toward him and rose up like a cobra. A long, sinuous strand of it danced in midair above his head, gravity gone. His eyes grew wide as he watched the spectacle. His ears were ready to pop. He crawled back toward the open doorway that led back into the front hall, pressure building in his ears. If they ever got out of this thing alive, he’d put up a storm shelter. Buy one of those “safe rooms” he’d seen advertised. Donate blood. Feed the homeless. Say the Lord’s Prayer every single night. Quit swearing. Whatever it took.

Please, God, have mercy on my famil…

Crawling back into the hallway on his hands and knees, Rob swept the flashlight beam across the mahogany legs of the mail table, the red and green area rug, a pair of sneakers by the front door . . . Wait a second. Back up. Sneakers?

Brand-new jogging sneakers, white and champagne shelltops, the kind of blinding white that made you want to step all over them. He gaped at those neatly tied laces and the jeans-clad legs attached to them, then gave a watery squawk as dirt flew into his eyes.

He couldn’t see. The front door was open, leaves and shredded debris whipping into the house. “Hello?” He squinted up in anxiety, blinking away the tears. Who was this person? A rescue worker? An intruder? The thought pulled at his stomach.

Blind, he was fucking blind.

He took a quick, sobbing breath as the owner of the sneakers stepped boldly into the house, crunching over broken glass. Then the door slammed shut with a thunk.

Excerpted from “The Breathtaker" by Alice Blanchard. Copyright © 2003 by Alice Blanchard. Published by . No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.