By Brooke Bolander
20 February 2012
Rhea is nine years old when she first meets the tornado that will fall in love with her. It comes late in the afternoon, after school and graham crackers and the four o'clock showing of Jeopardy. The sidewalks sweat like her father after a jog and the sky scums over with bruised purple-black clouds. The muggy wind blows restless, so unsettled she gets nervous even before the television starts blaring warnings. She reads the names of the counties as they scroll across the bottom of the screen, listening intently to everything the weatherman says. Rhea doesn't know what a lot of the words mean, but she knows what fear sounds like, and his voice is chock full of it.
"Folks, we have a very serious situation here. If you are in the path of this storm, I need you to go to an interior hall or bathroom right now." A wind hits the antenna outside and he briefly fades to ghostly static before popping back in. "We've got a debris ball on radar and confirmed sightings of a touchdown in Lark County. This is big. If you're in a mobile home, find a low-lying area outside, like a ditch or culvert. If you're listening to this from a car radio—"
The electricity cuts him off mid-sentence. Rhea is left alone in the dark of her grandparents' house, surrounded by shadows and the noise of increasing rain.
She wanders to the carport to watch the lowering sky, wondering where her grandma and grandpa could be. They are always here when her parents drop her off after school, and they always know what to do in big, frightening situations. Through mixup or accident they are not here this afternoon, out running errands or visiting friends or who knows what, and that leaves all the scary decisions in Rhea's hands, something she's not at all comfortable with. Her stomach writhes like a pool of scared tadpoles. The first camera flash of lightning drives her back into the house, away from the sticky breeze into musty, waiting silence. The battery-operated kit-kat clock on the kitchen wall stupidly ticks away the minutes, grinningly oblivious to their situation.
"You'll get blown away too," she tells it. "Right into the next county."
The kit-kat clock swishes on. She thinks she can sense nervousness in its shifty eyes.
Left with no other choice, Rhea sets out to prepare by herself in all the ways she's been taught. She strips the blankets and pillows off the bed and piles them into the bathtub. She grabs a flashlight and hauls Murray the big yellow tabby into the bathroom with her, all ten pounds of yowling, wounded dignity. When there's nothing else to do, she shuts the door, climbs into the tub, and huddles beneath the comforter. The air is stifling, and Murray won't stop meowing. She tries to say the prayers she's been taught, but they don't stop the aching in her gut like Grandma says they should. Bad things happen to good people all the time. Even at nine she's a little wary about putting all her faith into such a moody higher power, although that's the kind of thought she would never say in front of her grown-ups.
The waiting is the worst part. Balled up in the blackness, hoping that maybe nothing will happen, listening to the wind increase and rake at the walls. Listening, always listening, unable to do anything but stay put, the air getting more and more stale under the heavy sheet. Rhea holds her breath for as long as she can—it feels like hours—and then comes back up, clawing at the bedding for a fresh breath. She tugs the blanket away just in time to see, through the window, the neighbor's privacy fence go spiraling by, panels of plywood twirling like old newspapers.
The full force of the storm hits the house a second later. Everything—roof, walls, window, her popping ears—creaks and then gives before the bull's roar of the twister.
Rhea thinks she screams, but the whole world is screaming too so it's hard to tell. Glass shatters and pops into her face, cutting her cheeks. Bathroom tile and bits of plaster rain down on her head. The room pulls apart in hunks, walls peeled down to pink insulation and rose-printed, rose-scented strips of shredded paper. She realizes the ceiling's gone when hail begins to fall, nasty, biting little chunks of cold ice. Through the wall of noise and debris, looking up and up and up, she can see the jaws of the monster, an endless swirling throat of fog and whipped rain.
Frozen, Rhea stares up into the twister and waits for it to gobble her whole, blankets, bathtub, and all.
She doesn't know why she says it. It just comes without a thought, the last thing she'll probably ever whisper swallowed up in the fury of a tornado.
For a moment everything stops. The tornado's voice grows still. All the little chunks of trash hang frozen in the air, like someone's just hit the pause button. Rhea can see flowering shrubs and someone's shoe, a lawn gnome and two china cups. Then, just as suddenly, it all comes tumbling down. As quickly as it arrived the storm moves on, grumbling deep down in its throat.
Rhea's life never quite stops being weird after that.
When she's eleven, there is a Valentine's party held at her school. All the kids give each other chocolates and paper hearts, little notes of affection or humor or goodwill. Rhea gets nothing in her cubby hole and spends recess crying beneath the slides, a splotchy-faced outcast with too-big glasses and scuffed secondhand sneakers. She tells herself she doesn't care, but it still stings.
The storm blows in later that evening. Much to the delight of the students, the only thing it destroys is the middle school. Rhea wakes the morning after to find the front yard strewn with paper hearts, drifting gently down from the sky in a fluttering pink and red cloud.
On the night of her senior prom, a wedge tornado rips apart the gym where the dance is taking place. Rhea isn't there at the time. She's at home studying for a calculus exam, and only realizes something has happened when the Prom Queen's crown and bouquet of roses bang against the front door in quick succession. Later, it's a tricky affair to explain why she has these things. People give her funny looks when she swears they just appeared from the sky.
A wall cloud, the same vivid green as her graduation gown, keeps pace with her car on a seventy-five-mile long interstate jaunt to visit a friend up north. She keeps a wary eye on it as it skips across the distant plains, frisking along in her driver's side window like the happiest, most destructive puppy in the world. It's a strangely beautiful, perversely joyous thing. Rhea doesn't notice the smile creeping across her lips until she goes to check her lipstick in the mirror. For the rest of the journey she broods with the radio cranked up, wondering what the hell is up with her brain lately.
She begs her parents to move to Greenland or Finland or anywhere else, preferably somewhere cold with no rapid temperature shifts between air masses. They laugh and go right on living where their parents and grandparents settled before them, as rooted to the local soil as the big pecan trees the storms occasionally blow over. Folks like them don't up and leave because of a puny twister or twelve. They're used to it, or so they say.
Rhea begins dating an out-of-towner. She's making her escape plans before he even produces a ring.
The wedding was going so well up until this point, too.
Glasses and forks and bits of broken plates and cake lay strewn across the grass of the lakeside hill, a breadcrumb trail leading back to the lodge where guests huddle inside like a frightened covey of quail. One of the tables—the bench that previously held the catered macaroni and cheese, three different kinds of champagne, and the groom's favorite brand of potato chip—has turned turtle, legs sticking up at a crazy, immodest angle from the skirt of its paper covering. The wedding gifts sit deserted in a pyramid heap, already listing precariously in the wind.
The funnel in the sky overhead is a lacy confection of a thing, as delicately knit as anything Rhea, standing far beneath it, might be wearing. Her veil whips in the breeze. Both fists are balled at her sides, nails digging crescent moons into the flesh of her palms. Blood spots her bitten lip, and her expensive bridal coif is coming down around her ears.
Rhea has had it up to here with the friggin' tornadoes.
It must be the same one. The rudeness of its behavior combined with every other incident it has been responsible for in her life has pushed Rhea into a confrontation she's pretty sure will either result in her death, her commitment to a psychiatric ward, or her further instatement into family gossip for the next twenty years. She can feel eyes watching her from the windows of the lodge, cousins twice removed and great aunties wondering what crazy thing she'll do next. Fighting the urge to flip them all a glorious two-handed bird, she keeps her attention fully focused on the swirl of cloud above, determined to hash this out or die trying.
"What the hell do you mean by this? What gives you the fucking right?" She's yelling at the top of her lungs, trying to be heard over the noise of the storm. The downdraft keeps shoving her words back down her throat like used party napkins, which makes her even madder. "Obviously you don't want to kill me, Christ knows you've had enough chances to do that, so what exactly is it you want? Blood? A business partner?"
The wind tosses a rose from one of the bouquets into her chest. She looks down at it, mind doing all kinds of weird mental gymnastics. Valentines. Rose petals. The way it follows her everywhere like a smitten crush. Smitten? Oh, no. Hell no. A hysterical laugh bubbles up from deep inside. The psych ward it is, then. Napoleon, the guy who thinks he's a cheese cruller, and the girl who believes a tornado is in love with her. Come one, come all. They don't get crazier than this.
"Really?" she says. "Really? No, I'm sorry. You're a tornado. You don't get to fall in love. Do you even know what love means? You destroy cities. You've messed with my life; you even screwed up my wedding. All I want is to be normal. Do you know what normal is? It's NOT BEING CHASED BY FUCKING TORNADOS. Just leave me the hell alone, okay? Go do whatever it is tornados do. Please."
The air stills. Rhea braces herself for the fury of a jilted twister, imagining the authorities hauling her down from an oak branch in some town fifty miles distant. When nothing happens, she opens her eyes again to find the cloudbank dissipating, shreds of fluffy vapor unraveling like an old knit cap. All the tension goes out of her and she drops to her knees, suddenly, achingly exhausted.
When she enters the lodge the guests part nervously before her. She brushes past them until she finds her fiancé, Rick, as blonde and blandly handsome as a sunny day. He grabs her as she slumps. Strong arms. Stable arms. That's all Rhea wants right now.
"Take me somewhere normal," she says into his chest. "I want to do what normal people do."
They move to Southern California, where the biggest threat is the ground buckling beneath your feet. Rhea can handle earthquakes. They don't have personalities, or shapes, or strange unearthly voices. A big one can destroy your home, true, but compared to the sheer presence of a tornado they seem benign by comparison, just a thing that occasionally happens.
Rick buys them a pretty little house on a pretty little suburban street, complete with a dog in the yard and a rosebush beneath the kitchen window. The grass here is always green, the temperature always perfect. She doesn't have to work—that's taken care of, too—and there's always an endless stream of cheerful, attentive neighbors passing through, ready to lend a helping hand. They go to their jobs in the morning like a flock of starlings and come straight home to roost at night beneath cloudless, starry skies. When there are storms, they're short-lived and weak, blown apart by the coastal winds before they can even get a good hail going. It's safe. For the first time in her life, Rhea doesn't find herself worrying when dark clouds crowd the horizon. She worries about bills instead, or taxes, or dieting.
For two years they live like this, in the happy, insular world Rick has created for them. Relatives come to visit from the Midwest and tell her how lucky she is. Girl Scouts sell cookies door-to-door, leaving their bikes by the road when dinnertime calls them inside. Every day is exactly the same. Slowly, the newness begins to wear off like the shine from a penny. Rhea's smile becomes fixed and strained on her face, seams showing beneath the tan.
She has it made, but she's not happy. Not even close.
Her husband isn't the problem, not quite. He's handsome and cheerful, kind to a fault and considerate to embarrassment. If you need a kitten down from a tree, a granny helped across a street, or any combination of the two, Rick's your fella. Rhea resents her own feelings more than she does him, but there's nothing she can do about them. Too late she begins to realize that this is not what she wants, has never been what she wants. Sodium lamps and weather without weather and sprinklers that come on at 9 PM every night. Eerily identical houses on eerily identical streets, rows and rows and rows of them swallowing up the horizon.
Rhea closes her eyes beneath 600 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets and dreams of tornadoes.
Sometimes there's a man-shape inside, with hazel eyes and a halo of black hair. Sometimes the figure is a woman. This much is always the same: they look at her with sadness and something like pity and then turn away, the hurt plain across their faces, bare skin rippling back to cloud before Rhea can take three steps forward. She wakes with a barb of longing in her chest and carries it with her all through her bland, sunny day.
She doesn't miss tornadoes; that's not it at all. That would be silly. The excitement they represent? Maybe a little. But not the storms themselves, and certainly not her storm. You can't fall in love with destruction. What would that say about a person?
Rhea is twenty-two years old, and she's burning out on life so quickly it's like she's been dunked in gasoline. One day it gets to be too much. She throws all the clothes she can into a hiker's backpack and drives back east until she hits the plains. She stops at the first city with a good university and a better meteorology program.
Dear Rick, the letter she leaves him on the kitchen counter begins. I'm broken. I've gone to find other broken things. Don't wait up.
The black van bounces and jostles through the grass like a string of cans behind a newlywed sedan, hitting every dip it comes to with a joyful (and to Rhea's aching backside, malicious) rattle. The "road" they're following is little more than a twin set of ruts in the dirt, one of those little cattle paths ranchers use to feed and check up on their livestock. They fly along it like it's the Autobahn, white satellite hoisted sail-fashion atop the roof and a spume of dust curling from beneath the balding wheels.
Cave drives, goateed and tattooed and awake only by the grace of God knows what substance. Studious, buttoned-up Kelly, looking like a wet-behind-the-ears college professor crossed with a traffic cop, mans the GPS and the recording equipment, hissing gently each time the van sends him rocketing towards the yellowing ceiling. Rhea is in charge of radar duty. The screen in front of her is awash with ugly green and red splotches, like time-lapse footage of the worst case of chicken pox ever. The storms developed suddenly, maybe around 2 or so, and have been holding a course for the northeast ever since. If the oracles at the National Weather Service are correct, the biggest cell will be crossing their path within the next ten minutes. Her fellow chasers and meteorology students are already making plans for data and video and all the other things you jot down when a big tornado comes your way, chattering to one another over the radios in excited jargon that sounds more like starship navigation than weather detection.
Rhea has her own plans, but she keeps tight-lipped. She thinks of Rick getting a late-night phone call somewhere in San Diego. She thinks of her family, sisters and grandparents and cousins all whispering in hushed, solemn tones around piles of green bean casserole and fried chicken. Such a shame, they'd say, shaking their heads. Poor girl lost her marbles when she left her husband; it was only a matter of time before something bad happened. Storm-chasing, of all the careers, and after all the trouble she went through as a little girl.
Cave shouts a warning from up front and slams on the brakes abruptly, sending papers and equipment and people flying. Rhea careens off the walls like a cricket in a mason jar and lands ass-over-teakettle in a tangled heap on the floor, laptop still miraculously clutched in one hand. She's back on her feet before the engine can start to creak and cool, clambering over the front seats to check on Cave. Kelly groans and swears a blue streak behind her, half-buried beneath an avalanche of printer paper.
His fingers are clenched around the steering wheel when she makes it to the front, face blanched beneath the tattoos. He says nothing at all, simply points to the horizon through the cracked windshield. The radio roars with static and sirens and garbled voices.
"Fuck," he finally whispers.
It's a solid mass of churning black, stretching from one side of the sky to the other. Gray tentacles snake from its bulk. The wall cloud above spirals like an out-of-control galaxy dragged helplessly along and around. Grass billows and ripples before it, turned a shade of sickly technicolor green by the dying light. From this distance it looks like it's moving in slow motion, twirling towards them in ponderous silence. The van rocking in the wind is the only reminder that yes, the view through the glass is real. Not a newsreel, not a movie screen. The biggest tornado Rhea's ever seen in a life full of them, five miles wide and dense as a black hole.
Looking for her. Just as she's been looking for it.
She doesn't stop to think, doesn't let herself think. She simply acts, dropping the laptop, vaulting across the van and over Kelly and through the back doors so quickly nobody even tries to grab her until it's too late. The wind sucks her outside in an explosion of data papers and noise. If the others shout at her to come back, she can't hear it over the boom and shriek of the oncoming storm.
Rhea runs towards her tornado. It's hard going, wading through the alfalfa and timothy and goatweed, but it's coming to meet her, too, and every gust pulls her closer and closer. The world fades from green to deep purple. Debris begins to land around her, shingles and railroad ties and trees and a crumpled Radio Flyer stripped of all its paint. She wonders if she'll be crushed or impaled before she reaches the thing's outer limits, decides she doesn't care, and keeps moving, almost lifted off her feet by the force of the gale. Can it sense her down here, a tiny speck in the grass? More importantly, will it be happy to see her after last time? What if it's still disappointed?
She gets as close as she dares and cups her hands to her mouth. Fat lot of good that'll do.
"I came back!" she yells. "I've been tracing your cell patterns for years now, do you know that?"
There's a lull in the storm. Rhea can hear the blood pounding in her ears, louder than thunder. Her throat is scratchy and hoarse from flying dirt in the air, but she keeps talking anyway.
"Those things I said at the wedding . . . I'm sorry. I was pretty fucked up back then. I didn't really mean them, swear to God." Rain splatters onto her face and trickles down her cheeks. The pressure changes in her ears are excruciating. "I think I want to go with you. If you don't want me anymore, that's okay, but I had to find out. Just in case you did."
The tornado's spin slows. For a moment she thinks it's turning away, and her heart sinks. Then it bears down on her, five miles of chaos and movement and change. Rhea smiles like a lightning slash, opening her arms to take it all in.
"Take me some place interesting," she whispers.
And it does.