“About ready?” Dusty asked, juggling their bag of groceries in one arm as he bent to grab Colleen’s huge duffel bag of ‘camping supplies’ with his other hand. “When I’ve put this stuff in the truck, we should go. We’ll have enough to cope with in this shit without rush hour traffic.”
“Okay, but there’s no point in getting there before Thom gets back with Anna.” Colleen was still sorting through the pile of books and paper on her dining table, periodically jamming pages into her laptop case. “I need to make sure I’ve got everything I’ll need to work on—”
A stuttering flash lit all the windows, instantly followed by a glass-rattling blast of thunder.
“Jesus!” Colleen cried. “That was fucking close.”
Dusty looked up as hail began to clatter on the roof like a rain of nails.
“Listen to it,” Colleen said. “You can’t load the car in this. Wait ’til it dies back some.”
“If it does,” Dusty said, setting the bags down again. “Maybe we should check the—” A jarring, intermittent blare issued suddenly from both their phones. “What the hell is that?” he exclaimed, shoving a hand into his pocket to make it stop as Colleen grabbed hers from the table, and turned the sound off as well.
“Severe weather alert,” Colleen said, staring at her screen. “Hail, flooding, high wind and possible tornado warning?” She turned wide-eyed to Dusty. “Since when do we get tornadoes?”
“We don’t,” said Dusty, staring at the alert. “I’ve never heard a noise like that. Did you know our phones even got weather alerts?”
Colleen went to look out through the window above her couch. “What are we supposed to do? I don’t think this building even has a basement.”
Dusty went for the remote on her coffee table. “Let’s see what the news is saying.”
Seconds later, they stood together watching a reporter lean into wind and rain as he shouted into a handheld microphone and gestured at half-submerged cars and storefronts behind him. “The river is rising an astonishing one foot per hour, with even heavier rain expected through the night. Saturated hillsides throughout the region are beginning to slide, already damaging houses in Glenpark and Alder Creek, as well as toppling trees over power lines. Anyone living in low-lying areas should be keeping careful track of flood warnings this evening, which are certain to increase.”
“Thanks, Carl,” said an off-screen voice. The screen flashed to a distinguished, silver-templed gentleman sitting beside a pretty brunette at the station news desk. “As many of you are likely already aware,” he continued, “the weather service has just issued a severe weather alert for the widespread flooding you just saw, high wind, large hail, and the possibility of tornadoes!”
“Which, as everyone knows,” the woman beside him chimed in, “we do not normally experience in this part of the country! For some explanation, we go to our weather expert, Glenn DosSantos. Glenn?”
They turned to a young Latino man standing before a blue-screened county weather map.
“Thanks, Janet.” Glenn smiled grimly at the camera. “As Hank just said, the weather service has issued an utterly unprecedented tornado watch for our region. Now, very important, a tornado watch is different from a tornado warning. A watch just means conditions are ripe for possible tornado activity, and we should all be watching for further developments. So, you may want to make sure your neighbors, friends, or family members in this area just northwest of the city,” he turned to sweep one arm across a bright yellow, orange and red swirl on the animated satellite image behind him, “are aware of the threat.”
“Nowhere near us,” Dusty said, unclenching some inside.
“Not that far from campus though,” Colleen said tensely. “Should we call Anna?”
“The university’s probably already warned everyone there. Let’s watch this first.”
“A tornado warning—which has not yet been issued,” Glenn was saying, “would mean that actual funnel activity had been observed and verified. If that should happen, people in the affected area should take cover immediately. So, if you’re currently watching us from anywhere in this northwest quarter, or immediately east of it, you might think now about where to go quickly in the unlikely event that a tornado warning is issued. That shelter should be a room as far from the building’s exterior as possible—a basement or underground parking garage, if possible—with few if any windows. If nothing better is accessible, lie in your bathtub, wrapped in thick blankets. If a warning should be issued, do not run outside, as the air could already be full of flying debris that can cause serious injury.”
“Can you believe this?” Colleen asked quietly.
The camera switched back to Hank. “Sorry to interrupt, Glenn, but we’ve just received dramatic video, taken moments ago, of the state university’s administrative tower—one of the tallest structures in that area—where winds have been recorded during the past hour in excess of ninety miles per hour.”
“Oh my god,” Colleen breathed, bringing a hand to her chest.
At the mention of Anna’s building, Dusty’s whole body had gone cold.
“We do wish to emphasize again that this is not tornado activity,” Hank continued as the screen was filled with gray, unsteady video, clearly from a mobile phone, of Anna’s office building. “But, as you can see, these winds have already grown very dangerous.”
Dusty and Colleen watched, open-mouthed, as monstrous sheets of girder framing, broken sheetrock, and shattered glass peeled from the tower’s rooftop atrium to rain down on surrounding buildings and campus walkways.
“Holy shit!” Dusty blurted, yanking the phone from his pocket as another tangled mass swirled off the building top, then veered back around almost lazily to smash a bank of windows a few stories above Anna’s floor. He fumbled through ‘recent calls’ and jammed his finger onto Anna’s name.
“Speaker phone!” Colleen urged, still gaping at the TV screen.
Dusty pressed that button too, just as Anna answered.
“Where are you?” he half shouted. “Are you okay?”
“…Yes. …I’m with Thom. We were just going to call you. They’ve closed the Lyedon Freeway tunnel, so we’ll be delayed. …You sound upset. Has something…more happened?”
“So you’re already heading home?” he asked, needing to be sure.
“Thank god,” he said, only then realizing that his whole body was shaking.
“What’s wrong, Dusty?”
“Did you just get that weather alert?”
“We did. …Why?”
“Colleen and I are watching video, right now, on the news, of the admin tower’s roof peeling off. A big chunk of it just smashed a whole row of windows not far above your office.”
“Oh my god!” she exclaimed. “Hold on.” Dusty heard her mumbling, Thom’s voice in the background. The video footage on TV had been replaced now by Hank and Janet, but Colleen had muted the sound. “You’re on speaker now,” said Anna.
“Hi, Dusty,” Thom said in the background. “Can you hear us okay?”
“Is there really a tornado then?” Anna asked in audible disbelief.
“No. But they’re clocking winds downtown at over ninety miles an hour.”
He heard Thom whistle through Anna’s gasp. “I should have brought more work with me,” she moaned. “Doesn’t sound like I’ll be getting back there for a while.”
Dusty actually laughed. It was such a classic Anna response. No concern about dying. Just, ‘I should’ve grabbed more work.’ He was suddenly fighting back tears for the second time that afternoon. Adrenalin after-burn, he guessed. “I bet they fire your ass for slacking now.”
“Have they said if anyone’s been hurt?” she asked, ignoring his jibe.
“Not yet. But we’ve turned it down.”
“Okay. We’ll see you at the house then, but going around this freeway closure will take a good while longer, I’m sure. So you’ve got lots of time. Drive very safely, please.”
“Duh,” he said.
“I mean it, Dirty Harry. I’ve seen you drive. No impatience or heroics tonight, okay?”
Dusty bridled more at Colleen’s smug grin than at Anna’s ‘mom’ act. Being double teamed by these two always rubbed him wrong. “Okay. I’ll let you go then. Talking on the phone’s not safe while driving, you know.”
“She’s not driving,” Thom said. “I am, remember? We’ll see you soon.”
“Looking forward to it. Bye.”
As Dusty pushed the phone back into his pocket, Glenn the weather guy was back on-screen, waving at his swirly maps again. “What’s he saying?” Dusty asked.
Colleen raised the remote and un-muted the sound.
“So, nobody but us?” Janet asked from off screen. “Really?”
“That’s right,” said Glenn. “Just look at the satellite map and you’ll see how strange this is.” The image behind him zoomed slowly outward to show the extended region. “Here in Latham County,” he waved at the top of the screen, “they have mild autumn conditions.” His arm swept east. “Beaumount County? Sunny!” He waved downward, then left. “Wilson, Jasper, and Fenton Counties to the south and west, virtually no cloud cover at all. Everyone else in our region is experiencing pleasant, normal seasonal conditions. Forecasters are getting a lot of flak for the lack of warning here, but this unprecedented storm has literally appeared from nowhere, breaking pretty much every standard weather model anyone has seen before.”
The camera switched to Janet, who threw her hands up. “So who did we tick off?”
Glenn shook his head and shrugged as the camera returned to him. “Someone pretty powerful, clearly.” He waved again at the satellite image behind him. “This storm seems utterly unrelated to any detectable frontal system in this part of the country. I think we’re seeing an event here that will force meteorologists to rethink some of weather science’s most fundamental assumptions.”
“That’s all very interesting,” said Dusty, still weak with relief about Anna. “But I think we better turn it off and get out of here, okay?”
“Anna said we have lots of time,” Colleen objected. “Shouldn’t we wait, a little while at least—to see if this lets up some?” As she clicked the TV off, the storm’s roar outside seemed even louder. “I mean, is it even safe to leave in this?”
“Doesn’t sound to me like it’s getting any safer tonight, and it’s gonna be dark soon. Right now, it’s still just rain and wind, Collie. I don’t wanna wait ’til they close more roads or something.” Dusty walked back to the kitchen and bent to grab the bags he’d left there. “You got some plastic garbage liners somewhere? To put these in?”
“Under the sink.” She went to finish stuffing her laptop case on the dining table. “We’re taking both cars.”
Dusty turned, startled. That hadn’t been the plan. “Wouldn’t it be safer if I just bring you back tomorrow, and—”
“I’m not getting stuck at Thom and Anna’s for god knows how long with nothing but your truck, Dusty. Just follow me there, and you’ll be able to see if I’m in any trouble.”
Dusty drew breath to object, then let it go. He knew that tone of voice too well by now. She’d decided, and arguing would just cost them more time. “Okay.” He yanked a couple plastic bags out of the box, and went to shove their things inside them. “I don’t care. Let’s just get out of here while we still can.”
“What about your stuff?” Colleen asked, zipping up her case. “Won’t we need to stop at your apartment on the way?”
Dusty bowed his head and heaved a sigh. “I forgot about that.”
She came toward him with an outstretched hand. “Give me one of those garbage bags. I want to pack some extra clothes and rain gear.”
Another strobe of lightning lit the room, followed, as they both spun toward the windows, by a rolling peal of softer thunder.
He handed her a bag. “Make it quick, okay?”
“Two minutes,” she said. “That one seemed farther off. Maybe the rain will ease up.”
“Not likely. …Let’s forget about my place. I can borrow whatever I need from Thom. We’re close enough in size. My school stuff’s all still in the car.”
She gave him a thumbs up, already heading for her room. “Two minutes. Promise.”
As she trotted off, Dusty’s phone rang. “What now,” he murmured, seeing Thom’s name as he swiped it open. “Disaster central, how may I direct your call?”
“Hilarious,” Thom said dryly.
Dusty grinned. “Spot any tornadoes yet?”
“Nope. But the streets are all jammed to hell. Looks like everyone’s leaving work early—surprise, surprise. We’re going to be even slower than we feared, but I’m thinking you guys should probably leave now after all.”
“Already got the memo,” Dusty said. “Two minutes. Colleen promised.”
“You know where the key is, right?”
“If you haven’t moved it.”
“Good. If you get there first, go in and make yourselves at home. Oh, and take the Ralston route, not North Lake. Anna’s monitoring the disaster channel on her phone now. And they say North Lake’s flooding already.”
“Got it. Thanks,” Dusty sighed—not bothering to remind Thom that both he and Colleen had traffic apps, and knew how to use them. Among the four of them, only Thom remained stubbornly resistant to the current century. “Keep us informed, okay?”
“You too. Guess I better go. No telling when one of these other cars might move again.”
“Be careful,” Dusty said, then winced to hear himself parroting Anna.
“Hard not to, at the moment,” Thom chuckled. “Bye.”
As Dusty put his phone away, Colleen returned wearing a bright red plastic hooded raincoat with little yellow chickens printed all over it. “Two minutes. As promised.” One of her hands dragged a well-stuffed garbage bag. Her other held out a heavy, turquoise-colored, quilted raincoat with fluffy white fur trim around the hood and hems. “For you,” she said, clearly biting back laughter.
He offered her his best ‘you’re fucking nuts’ smile. “Not a chance.”
“Do you hear that?” she asked, glancing at the ceiling where marble-sized raindrops still hammered the roof. “If those are the only clothes you’ve got right now, maybe it’s worth two minutes of wounded pride not to soak them through just getting to the car. You can take it off behind the wheel. I won’t post any photos. Your secret’s safe.” She tossed the coat at him, and walked over to the bookshelves in her living room, where a small, bright aquarium bubbled cheerfully, oblivious to the chaos around it.
“Bye, Mabel,” Colleen cooed to one of the black and orange fish fluttering around inside it. “Bye bye, Charlie. Bye, Bob.” She reached for a small canister beside the tank, opened it, and sprinkled a pinch of flakes from within it onto the water. “That’s extra,” she told the fish as they rushed to the surface, “’cause you may not get any more for a few days. You guys take care of each other while I’m gone, okay? I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Dusty rolled his eyes. “Colleen, we kind of need to keep things moving.”
“Oh, hold your horses,” she said wearily. “I’m just making sure my fish don’t starve.” She came back to hoist her garbage bag, grabbed her laptop case from the table, and started for the door. “If you’ll bring the food and my other bag, I’ll go pull my car out and wait by the exit.”
“Right.” He pulled on her cushy coat, reluctantly. It was way too small, of course, binding him uncomfortably beneath the arms. “Thom says to go through Ralston. North Lake’s flooded. And everybody’s leaving early, so rush hour’s already started.”
“Great. See you down there.”
“I’m right behind you.” Dusty bent to lift his bags as Colleen pulled the front door open.
The roar of wind and rain rushed in like an angry animal, yanking the door free of Colleen’s divided grasp to bang against the wall. Her pile of schoolwork on the dining table blew into the air, swirling around Dusty’s head before she was able to retrieve the handle, and yank the door closed behind her as she staggered out.
Dusty set his bags down long enough to zip up Colleen’s fluffy coat as best he could, suddenly less ungrateful for the loan. This was clearly going to be the funnest drive ever—if they weren’t just sucked up two blocks down the street by some passing twister, and deposited in Oz.