The hot morning had become a stifling afternoon, oppressive and humid. A breeze had come up in the last few minutes, but it was still hot. In the parking lot of Luke's diner, under a large elm tree, Gavin Braddock sat on the front bumper of his truck, waiting. He watched a massive bank of white-grey cumulus building in the west. They grew inexorably, ever higher, rolling, tumbling, driven by a restless energy. The power of the impending storm thrilled him.
Presently, a red Chrysler drove into the lot and parked opposite. The passenger was an athletic woman, her hair in a short ponytail. A young man, stocky-built and brown-haired got out of the driver's side. As they walked towards Gavin, a blue Ford arrived and parked next to the Chrysler. The driver, a tall man with dark hair and a neat beard, jumped out and joined the group.
Gavin greeted the couple, with a smile. “Hey Finn. Hey Laura, I’m so glad to see you guys.”
Then he turned to the driver of the Ford. “Hey Bradley, good to see you, buddy!”
“Thanks for setting it up, Gav," replied Bradley, earnestly. "It’s been a year since we were last here. I’ve missed you guys.”
“Yeah. A year last Friday,” confirmed Gavin. “That’s why I sent the message. It’s been too long. Time to get together again at Luke’s. And right now, too. Time for some air conditioning!”
He turned and led the way into the small diner. It was a good place, a real local hangout where they had often met before. Before the tragedy, last season, it had been a kind of 'central command', where they pored over maps and plotted starting positions and possible routes for the chase.
But then they were six friends. The Stormy six-pack. A passionate group of dedicated storm chasers. But now, what were they? A “four-pack”? Rex and Maddie had been special. Not only was Rex the scientific leader, the ‘real’ meteorologist, and Maddie too, with her amazing expertise with the doppler and the gizmos. They were also, simply, exceptional people. Their loss had been gut-wrenching. And the complete disappearance of their bodies was incomprehensible.
The group of four took a spot near the west-facing window, in a booth of six seats. A young waitress wearing a pink and white striped dress and small apron came to the table. “Hey y’all, my name is Lacey. I’ll be your waiter today.”
They ordered two iced teas, a coffee and a large orange juice.
Things felt a little awkward. This reunion was more difficult than Gavin had expected.
“Guys, I think it’s time,” he said, after a few moments. “And today is the day. It’s gonna be big, I can feel it.”
Silence. Were they waiting for him to say a bit more? Weighing it all up? Trying the idea on for size?
At length, Bradley spoke. But not about the developing storm framed by their window. On his mind was a storm from a year before.
“Guys, what happened?” he asked. “I know we talked about it a little. But… You know what I mean. How the hell did it happen? How did we, how did they, not see the damn thing coming? Hell, Rex and Maddie were the best.”
Lacey, the waitress, arrived and served the drinks. Bradley waited until she had gone.
“And what happened to their…” he started to say, then paused, seeing the alarm on Laura’s face.
She looked anxious, but after a moment she spoke with anguish in her eyes. “It has been so tough guys. I miss them so much. Both of them. But Maddie was like a sister to me. And their kids...”
She hesitated a moment, doing all she could to hold back the tears. Then she looked intently across the table at Gavin, “I don’t think we should be going back, Gav. It’s not fair on our families. Everything is different now.”
Gavin looked at Laura, then out of the window. Their long and happy friendship, previously so deeply rooted in a shared passion, now carried a heaviness and a burden that threatened to tear it all apart. Working out what this might mean, and how to take it forward, was not easy for a man like Gavin.
He answered haltingly. “Well, I dunno... I guess…”
“I still think we should…” he continued after a moment. “We love it. It’s in our blood. And not just for us, but for Maddie and Rex. They wouldn’t want us to stop. Would they? You all know what Rex believed! The more we can understand these storms, the more lives we can save!”
He stopped speaking, and bit his lip, before he concluded, “Guys, we can learn from what happened. We can stop it happening again.” Surely this was all that needed to be said. This was what mattered.
He turned to Bradley, “Brad, tell us what you saw.” There was an edge in Gavin’s voice. He was rattled, unsure.
Bradley took a moment to answer. Then he began, slowly, with his story.
“Well, I was stopped along Flinders road filming the tornado to the west. It appeared to be about a half mile away. I reckoned there was plenty enough time to escape.”
“But what I didn’t know was that it was already more than ¾ of a mile wide. Maybe it was already a mile. It was huge. And it was galloping. Forward speed was already 35 or 40 miles an hour. I only realised the huge danger when the wind-field suddenly hit. I drove north. It caught me on the outer edge, but I got out in time. But shit, I’ve never been so scared.”
“It was a monster, " he said. "I was watching a few miles to the North, caught between the crazy hailstorm, and the funnel. It was stupid of me. I was in the notch, but I only realised too late. And there was just so much rain, I wasn’t sure where the damn thing was.”
He drained the last of his tea.
“To be honest, I wasn’t sure which way to go. I ended up going west on a guess, thinking it was heading south east. And it was, pretty much. But the crazy thing was that I thought I went straight into it. It was so disorienting. Actually, I drove into the edge of a satellite. Not so big, but, hell, it gave me a scare.”
He looked at Finn. “What about you guys. You were east of it, weren’t you?"
Finn’s smile faded. For a moment he looked at Laura. She was staring out of the window.
“Yeah,” began Finn, turning again to Gavin. “We were east of the thing. On Fletcher’s road. I can remember how difficult it was to see anything. Before we knew it, we were being swept by those damned curtains of rain, moving fast, extremely close. We took off. The problem was we had to drive east before could turn. It got damn scary. That storm was pacing. If we hadn’t been able to get north when we did, there’s no way we could’ve outrun it in the rain, with the road bad as it was.” He looked around the table. “That was the worst mother of a storm I’ve ever seen. And I’m telling you it was moving at 50 miles an hour. Or more, maybe.”
Laura turned back from her contemplating. “Sure. It was a bad storm,” she said impatiently, “We all know that. Hell, guys, it wasn’t our first storm. But Rex and Maddie knew the drill. They were the best. They didn’t take risks. How could it happen?”
Her question was a plea. Not easy to answer; there was another silence. Finally Gavin spoke again.
“I think I know,” he said, cautiously. “I’ve been going over the data. Over and over. Actually, the amazing thing is the data. First, there was the doppler. It was transmitting constantly, and we have the data right up until the end. Rex and Maddie were watching what the storm was doing the whole time.”
Gavin hesitated, looking around the table. He was ready with his trump card. He wanted to swing the discussion. Bring things back to what really mattered.
“But we also have the data from the new pods… Guys, this was a breakthrough. Hell, it was a triumph! Maddie did it! Those last pods she designed really did it. Both pods recorded over 10 minutes of perfect data. They were running the whole time. Video, temperature, elevation, pressure, wind speeds. The whole lot. I just wish Maddie could have seen it. This is what she lived for.”
Laura’s face had become very pale. She looked exhausted.
“You OK, Laura?” asked Gavin.
“Yeah, go on,” she said, faintly. “But you still haven’t explained what happened.”
“Well… I think the whole thing hinges on a crazy direction change,” said Gavin. “Mainly the storm stayed true to track and I think they were going south to drop the activated pods and get out of there. I think, on Route 59, they weren’t quite sure and stopped to assess what was happening.”
“But this is exactly what I can’t understand,” retorted Laura. “They had the radar! They could see what it was doing! Why didn’t they turn back?”
“That was the freak of it,” replied Gavin, slowly. “The vortex veered, suddenly north-west, traveling fast, crazy fast. I don’t think they realized, same as me, they were right in the notch, with the hail north of them. They were blind at that point, totally blind. The storm moved way too quick for the radar to complete its volume scan. Maybe 3 miles in 4 minutes or faster. And in the rain, they couldn’t see it before it was on top of them.”
“Well, then the monster just sat there, right exactly where they were. For maybe a minute or more. Winds were pushing way over 300 miles an hour. The pods were pulled a couple of miles up into the atmosphere. We have the most amazing data, from what may be the biggest, most powerful storm ever. Guys, we’re on the edge of something amazing here!”
Gavin finished speaking. He had said what he needed to say.
But, again, there was the silence.
The wind was blowing harder now, from the west. It was getting dark as heavy clouds blew in overhead.
Then Bradley spoke. “Guys, I’m out of it. It’s not fun anymore. When people die it’s not fun. I don’t know if it’ll ever be fun again. No footage or report or data is worth risking your life”.
Gavin felt a cold shiver. Hadn’t he just made the perfect case for carrying on? Were these guys not listening?
“Us too, Gavin,” said Finn, “I’m sorry, man. So sorry. It was fun before and we loved it. You know we loved it! And we love you. And we loved Rex and Maddie. But it’ll never be the same again. I’m sorry buddy. We’re not ready. Maybe we won’t ever be ready.”
That was it. The end.
Gavin watched them get in their cars. Finn and Laura drove out and turned east, towards town.
Towards safety. Shelters. Away from the storm. Bradley did the same.
Gavin sat for a while, staring at the bruised, restless sky. Then he walked to his car and drove out. He turned west.
An hour later, the sky over Luke’s diner had become sickly green, overthrown by the angry, pregnant storm. Vicious gusts of powerful wind howled across the street and into the parking lot, bending the trees, blowing over garbage cans and sending all manner of trash whirling eastward.
And then, a new, sudden noise. A droning wail.
Warning! Tornado! Coming.
Minutes later, a rushing wall of water, like a tidal wave. Only inland. Followed by a horrifying blast of sheer noise, like a hurtling freight train. Nothing to be seen, only flying darkness. The wind and water lashing, tearing. And the noise. Always the terrifying, horrible, noise: screaming, madly, like a demented banshee.
Finally, it was over. Who knows how long. How long is a nightmare? Passed to the east.
Luke’s dinner no longer existed. Obliterated.
There was no longer any sign of the elm tree. All that remained was a gash in the torn asphalt where its roots had been torn, forcefully, from the earth.
A twister had been and gone. Nobody chased this storm. Nobody collected any data.