Edition 14: Chasing the Storm by S. G. Larner
Chelsea chases storms, frequent visitors to the Queensland coast. It’s not just a photograph she is after; she chases the past and a mistake that can’t be undone. But maybe, if she’s close enough, she can try… SY
“There’s a big one forming up near Rollingstone. You coming?” Paul’s voice distorts as I hold the phone away and glance at my boss. He boxes a pizza, tosses it onto the warmer and faces me, one eyebrow raised expectantly.
“Please, Billy?” I turn the puppy-dog eyes on and pout. “Paul says it’s big.”
Billy rolls his eyes. “It’s always big, Chelsea. Who am I to stand in the way of glory? I’m sure we’ll manage.” He flicks a tea towel at my hip. “Go on, bugger off.”
“You’re the best boss in the world,” I say with a grin as I hang up my apron.
“Just make sure you share the photos on Facebook!” he yells as I hurry for the door. Just before I leave the pizzeria I hear him explain to a puzzled customer, “She’s a storm-chaser. Bloody crazy, but she gets good photos!”
The storm season has brought more tornadoes to North Queensland in the last few years. Climate change, the scientists say, has made the weather worse. It’s certainly been a busy summer for us. No cyclones yet, but it’s only a matter of time.
Paul screeches to a halt in front of my house, leaning on the horn. He leaves the battered Subaru’s engine running. The air is oppressive, humidity coating my skin with sticky sweat. I peel out of my pizza-drenched uniform and throw on some clothes scavenged from the floor. A final check to make sure I have everything and I’m off down the stairs and settled in the car before my brain can catch up.
With little respect for local speed limits Paul pulls away from the kerb and points the car in the direction of Rollingstone: north. His red hair is tousled and his freckled face alive with excitement.
“They upgraded the forecast this morning. It’s a beauty. Might be some hail and maybe a tornado, if we’re lucky.”
“I’d love to see a tornado. Tom’s team down at Rockhampton got one last week, lucky bastards.” I fiddle with the settings on my camera. “Is it heading for Balgal Beach or is it staying inland?”
Paul shrugs. “The warning said variable winds, so anything goes.” He wrinkles his nose. “You smell like pizza.”
“Sorry.” I laugh. “Didn’t really have time for a shower.”
“You can make it up for me by coming out to dinner with me next week?”
I raise my eyebrows and glance at his profile. His face burns bright red. “Are you asking me on a date?”
He coughs. “Maybe.”
My shoulders tense. I’ve avoided relationships, rebuffed all advances. An awkward silence settles between us as I search for a response.
“Were you up here when Cyclone Yasi hit?” I ask finally, watching Paul out of the corner of my eye. He slumps, shakes his head.
“Nah, I was in Brisbane. My parent’s house flooded in the January floods, you know? So during the lead up to Yasi we were busy cleaning out mud and trying to chase up insurance.”
“That year was crazy.”
Paul nods, tapping a rhythm on the steering wheel. We pass the turn off for Bushland Beach and he accelerates as we hit the highway.
“My Dad went missing, during Yasi. We never found him, and they didn’t include him in the official toll. They said one person died; but not my Dad. He’s still listed as missing.” I stare out the window at the scrubby landscape. The first drops of rain spatter against the glass. Paul stops tapping.
“Wow,” he says. “I’m sorry. That’s shit.”
“Yeah, it was. People said he left because my Mum was a bitch.” I watch the raindrops slide down the window in jagged trails, remembering.
A gust of wind made the gauze curtains billow out from the window. Palm trees silhouetted against the bruised sky thrashed in unison. Lightning flickered over to the east, burning a purple afterglow into my retinas.
I closed my eyes, listening to the roar of the wind. Eerie howls whistled around the old windows of our highset house. Ghosts, my brother Andrew and I used to call them.
The door banged open.
“Geez, Chelsea, you crazy? Shut the damn window.” Mum’s face bore a permanent frown, framed by crazy brown corkscrews. “Dad’ll be in in a sec to tape ’em up.”
“Yes, Mum,” I said, dragging out the syllables in mock teenage angst.
She pressed her lips together and slammed the door behind her. I rolled off the bed and walked the five steps to the window. The curtain flapped against my body, trying to ensnare me. As I pulled the window shut the ‘ghost’ wailed. Then the sounds were muted, the outside world distant.
The door opened again and Dad poked his head in.
“Right if I tape up your windows, Chels?”
“Yeah, Dad.” I sat on the bed and watched him. Grey encroached in his faded brown hair and I could smell the beer oozing from his pores. “Gettin’ a few beers in before she hits, hey, Dad?”
He shrugged his shoulders, hunching them a little. “Your Mum’s a bit cranky with me.” He avoided my gaze.
“Yeah, well, she’s been running around like a headless chook all morning trying to get things ready. I’m not surprised she’s pissed at you.”
“It was just a few beers, love. The boys and I…”
“You don’t have to justify it to me, Dad.”
He finished taping the windows. “Right, love, that should do the trick. You got your torch?” I pointed at my stash of candles and the LED torch by the bed. His crinkled brown face eased into a lop-sided grin.
“Thanks, Dad. Go give Mum a hug.” I jumped off the bed and gave him a quick hug. “Pass it on.”
The old in-joke made him chuckle. Memories of my brother and I being chased squealing around the house to ‘pass the hug’. “Hug’s gonna getcha,” we’d chant. Dad shut the door gently as he left. I sat on my bed and shook my head at how sentimental the cyclone was making me.
“I do wish Andrew was here,” I said. The lights flickered once and died. I scrambled over to the bedside table and, with shaking hands, lit a pillar candle.
This cyclone was supposed to be the biggest in a hundred years. It was popular to act unconcerned among my friends, but I was pretty scared. Andrew was in Townsville for uni, so we weren’t worried about him. But Mission Beach was supposed to cop the full force of it.
Something was banging. I heard the faint hammering over the wind, even with the window closed. Mum’s voice, incoherent through the door, roared louder than the wind. I dashed to the door and flung it open as the words surged down the hall toward me.
“—instead you had to go and get pissed with the boys! And that Mike, why he had the pub open, of all days… we’re gonna lose that damn roof now! Christ, Barry!”
“The shed,” I said and ran to the window before smooshing my cheek against the cool glass to get a better view.
Intermittent forks of lightning provided enough illumination for me to see the tin shed roof flapping like crazy. Flying debris was a real risk in a cyclone.
My chest tightened; guilt oozed through my veins. Yesterday’s conversation played out in my mind:
“Hey, Dad, can you take me into town?”
“I’ve gotta fix the roof of the shed, love.”
“Please? I need to get Mum a birthday present before the cyclone comes through. I won’t have anything, otherwise, and the shops’ll be closed for ages. You can fix the roof later.”
A figure streaked across the lawn. Dad struggled with the loose section of roof. Mum yelled out to him from the top of the stairs.
“Don’t be an idiot, Barry. Get back inside!” I doubted Dad could hear her above the wind. My heart flapped like the shed roof. A gust of wind drove a sudden flurry of rain against my window and I lost sight of Dad for a moment.
I raced to the front door. Mum was a dark figure in the entrance, still hollering at Dad. I joined my voice to hers, shrieking as loud as I could. Sharp talons of rain needled our skin, the wind bullied us with invisible punches, but we could only watch Dad as the cyclone swallowed our shouts.
The smell of ozone filled my nostrils. “Dad!” I screamed. With a violent wrench, the cyclone tore the sheet of tin from the shed roof and sucked it into the air. Dad flinched and ducked as it cartwheeled off in the direction of the Adams’s place.
Dad hunched against the rain and ran back toward the house. Mum sagged next to me, breathing out in a big whoosh.
I blink and look at Paul. He’s cracked his window slightly; the temperature inside the cabin drops as the wind blows in.
“Sorry, I was thinking,” I say. We speed past Rollingstone’s lush greenery, the occasional razed sugar cane field dotting the scenery.
“Can you check the radar? We’re getting closer, I want to maximise our chances of seeing a tornado.”
I check the instruments. “You need to head northeast. Looks intense.”
He grins. “You up for this?”
The air blowing in the window smells of ozone and freshly-harvested sugar cane. I breathe in deep. “You have no idea how up for it I am.”
In the dull gloom the tin soared like a giant bat. Tossed back by the wind it smacked Dad in the head and he crumpled. The tin fluttered along the ground before another squall picked it up to continue its deadly dance. Heedless of the wind and rain, Mum and I leapt down the slippery stairs and ran screaming into the yard.
I fell to my knees in the soggy, muddy grass. Dad’s face was white, battered and bloody. Mum checked for a pulse, ignoring the ragged wound on his head. The rain mingled with his blood, diluting it. It did something similar to my tears.
Mum started CPR, cursing and pleading with Dad. “You stay with me Barry, ya shithead!”
I was almost drowning from the rain streaming down my face before it stopped and the wind dropped. Startled by the change, I looked up.
“Back towards the beach, Paul, no, east! Go right! Shit!”
The Subaru skids as Paul swings around. I grip the door, thankful the people of the sleepy little beachside town are staying inside. There are more trees than houses on Acheron Drive, shedding branches to litter the road. The storm hammers us, wind buffeting the car, rain flooding the windscreen wipers struggling to keep up.
“There!” I point and Paul floors it. There’s a phantom shape looming over the tiny town, and my heart thrums. I squirm, full of adrenaline but trapped in my seat.
“It’s forming, it’s forming! Holy shit, Chels, it’s right in front of us!”
I’m straining forward as far as the belt will let me. Paul has a mad grin on his face as he wields the wheel like a racing expert. I take photos through the windscreen; the video camera has been rolling for a while, mounted on the dash.
Paul takes a turn to chase the tornado, and we’re speeding around the quiet streets of Balgal Beach, the old beach houses, powerlines, palms and gum trees trembling before the unfamiliar threat.
“Shit, it’s in front of us,” Paul says and brakes. We sit staring at the narrow funnel, trying to figure out which way it’s going to move.
This might be the best chance I get.
I fling open my door and undo my seatbelt in one swift movement, and then hurl myself out of the Subaru.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Paul yells, trying to grab my arm.
“Stay there!” I turn to him with my hand held out to signal STOP. His hands are spread wide, his mouth hangs open. The rain soaks me and my ears fill with the rushing of the wind. I gaze at Paul’s shocked face a moment longer, wishing I’d taken the time to get to know him better. The dinner invitation hangs over my head, unanswered. Then I’m off, cutting across an overgrown vacant lot and running straight for the funnel.
They were streaky, like charcoal smudges: thin and wispy. Perched atop tall maypole bodies their heads reminded me of hammerhead sharks, but black and eyeless. I scraped wet tangled hair off my face. They were still there.
Mum was looking too. She stopped CPR, gaped at them. They surrounded us, six skinny figures, all about three metres high. I could see the palm trees moshing but we felt nothing of the cyclone’s wrath.
They each took a small step inward to tighten the circle. Mum crouched protectively over Dad. One of them raised a spindly arm and beckoned. A chill crept through my brain, a low vibrating buzz.
Mum and I exchanged glances. At the shock on my face she got to her feet.
Some primal instinct buried deep down, some basic genome within us understood these creatures, had met them before. They wanted an offering. They wanted Dad.
“No. You’re not taking him.” Mum stood strong and fearless.
“Don’t let them take him,” I said, trembling.
Mum helped me up and put her arms around me. She looked to the circle of dark figures. “Not him.”
Pressure built, like a migraine. Mum clutched her head. Lightning flashed.
In my peripheral vision the world spun, a ruined watercolour of green and grey and purple. The figures moved closer. I buried my face against Mum’s shoulder and breathed in her spicy scent. She was solid rock—kept me grounded. Her breath hissed out as one of the figures touched us.
Images flashed through my mind. It was like a rapidly edited evolution sequence, the sped up history of our species on the big screen. I saw disaster after disaster attended by these beings. Were they gods? Aliens? Opportunistic scavengers? They demanded tribute.
Eyes squeezed shut, I muttered “No, no, no, no” over and over. Mum was oddly still, her breath coming in shallow gasps; I looked up at her.
She gazed at the inky figures with eyes that saw more than mine. I shook her.
“Mum, what are you doing?”
Mum shrunk as she took a step back. “Let him go, Chelsea.”
I stared at her. “Mum, no!”
“He’s gone, love. It’s just a shell.”
Her wrinkles were etched deep, dark circles underlined the tiredness in her eyes. My eyes were wide, full of disbelief. My blue eyes—Dad’s eyes—versus her faded brown eyes.
Outrage fuelled recklessness. I turned on them.
“Get away from us!” My voice rose to a shriek. “Fuck off!”
They ignored me, six pencil-thin arms reaching down to touch Dad. I tried to swat them away but my hand passed right through. One turned and regarded me with eyeless indifference.
“Vultures,” I hissed.
Each dark face turned to me. Something brushed my hair lightly but there was nothing there. The pressure in my head eased.
I stumbled back, disoriented. The creatures crouched over him, their forms flickering. As I blinked they all disappeared, taking Dad’s body with them.
Swamped in a deluge the wind threatened to knock us down. We scrambled for the stairs. As we reached the open doorway Mum cast one last glance to the gloomy grey sky before slamming the door.
I spoke with exaggerated slowness, enunciating every word. “When this is all over I’m going to live with Andrew in Townsville.”
Mum faced me, straightened her shoulders and took a breath to speak.
I turned my back on her and walked to my room, my spine stiff.
At the threshold to my bedroom I turned. “I wish they’d taken you!” I ground out between clenched teeth as the tears began to fall, and then I heaved the door shut behind me.
A tiny fibro house huddles to my left, and a power line shudders overhead. Leaves flung by the wind scour my face. The old beach street stretches before me, curving off into the trees. I slow to a walk, staring up at it as it crouches over the horizon like a beast waiting to pounce, trying to see inside it. I’m not as close to it as I feel—close enough to be at risk from the debris, not close enough to be sucked up into it. It’s not as impressive as the American ones you see on Youtube—thinner, smaller.
Mini, the media would say. There’s no such thing as a mini-tornado.
My focus narrows until there’s nothing but the rain on my skin, the swirling mass of dust and debris and its high-pitched shriek.
“Where are you?” I scream into the monster. “Someone’s gonna die, right? So where the fuck are you?” The tornado gyrates and heads west toward a pineapple farm, creeping away from me.
The cyclone battered our house all night long. At three am I woke. Silence stretched into corners. All was still. The eye of the storm was passing over us.
I crept out the front door and downstairs into the expectant air. Frogs and crickets chirped in the darkness. Above me stars glimmered on a flat indigo canvas. To the east masses of angry clouds advanced.
I sat down in the middle of the yard and stared up at the sky. What else hid behind the veneer of reality? My cheeks were cardboard stiff and there was an empty hole inside me.
The stairs creaked. I hunched my shoulders.
“Chelsea,” she said, her voice soft in the silence.
“Go away.” Tears threatened to spill. Footsteps squelched behind me. I couldn’t hold it back.
“It’s my fault, Mum. I’m sorry.” My tears were torrential. Mum sat behind me and rocked me back and forth like I was a baby.
“It’s no-one’s fault. You’re not to blame.”
“I am. I asked Dad to drive me into town yesterday instead of fixing the roof. I wanted to get you—” I hiccuped, “—a birthday present. Happy fucking birthday!”
I waited, but Mum said nothing more to soothe my guilt. It was my fault, then. I breathed in the smells of my Mum; Dad’s blood, grass and mud and rain, spicy deodorant, black coffee. My Dad was dead. My fault.
“Go back to bed, love.” She let go of me and stood. “We’ll talk more in the morning.”
“Mum, it was real, wasn’t it? You saw them?” I glanced at her leathery face. She gazed off to the west, where the receding clouds held the answers. She expelled a sigh.
“Yes. I saw them.”
“Everything’s different now. How do I go back to school? Be normal? Now that I know…about them. What else is out there? How do I deal with that, on top of losing my Dad?”
She leaned down and kissed the top of my head. “One day at a time.”
I follow it. A mango tree’s foliage and ripening fruits are stripped from its branches. The tornado cuts a path through some paperbarks, reaching the house hidden by the trees. A Hills Hoist clothesline flies through the air, and I flinch when it slams into the dirt near me in a tortured heap of twisted metal.
A hand grabs my arm and spins me around. I hadn’t heard him coming.
“What the hell are you doing, Chelsea?” Paul’s eyes—blue as a bright summer day—are wide, beseech me for an explanation.
I wrench my arm out of his grasp. “Go back to the car, Paul. I can’t explain it. I need to do this.” I touch his freckled cheek. “I’m sorry. But I wouldn’t want to lose you too.”
My chest constricts with sudden realisation. This is what they’re waiting for. Paul screws up his face.
I crouch beside the ruined metal spokes of the Hills Hoist.
Mum reported Dad as missing. The police questioned us. We said that he went out to fix the shed roof during the cyclone and didn’t come back. Andrew came up from Townsville to help. My school was trashed, but when Mum suggested Distance Ed. I told her I was dropping out anyway. I avoided my friends, got my licence and started following the storm chasing posts on Facebook.
When Andrew left to go back to university I went with him. “I need to get away,” I said to Mum.
She hugged me. “Please do something else. Get a job. Stop obsessing over this.”
I got a job at Billy’s Pizzeria after helping remove a snake from the toilets and joined up with the local storm chasers. Andrew nagged me to get a better job, go back to school. “You’re breaking Mum’s heart,” he said.
“You don’t understand,” I replied.
I had to see them again.
Sacrifice. Tribute. A death was needed to bring them to me.
I stare at Paul. Rain hammers us both. He’s only about a year older than me, early twenties. He can’t grow a beard to save his life.
How much do I want to see them? Is it worth this? I pull on a broken section of the metal clothesline, trying to free it from the wreckage. My tongue tastes bitter and the pounding of my heart fuels my strength.
“Chelsea, I know it’s personal, I understand about your Dad,” Paul says as I worry at the Hills Hoist like a staffy with a ball. “I always wondered why you were so obsessed. But you can’t fight the storm. Come back to the car.” Paul holds his hand out. It shakes. He looks over my shoulder. “It’s coming this way.” He keeps his voice calm.
I can feel it. I can feel them when I close my eyes. They’re waiting. The jagged bit of metal comes free.
No one will ever know. My body is so taut my muscles ache. If I kill him, they will come. Just like they did when Dad died.
“Look, Chelsea, I’d really like to get to know you better,” Paul says. “This is not worth throwing your life away. Come back to the car, please?”
Mango scent is thick in the air from the destruction of the fruit tree behind me. It smells like Dad’s mango pavlova. What a waste. I let the tension drain away and drop the metal spoke. I’m weak, and I can’t do it. Killing Paul, if I could even manage it, won’t bring my Dad back.
Paul grabs my hand and tugs me along, and I offer no resistance as we dodge fallen power lines. We fall into the car and the wheels squeal as we accelerate away from the tornado that bears down on us.
The tears begin to fall as we reach the Bruce Highway, a straight grey road to nowhere flanked by bright green vegetation.
Paul misunderstands, brushes them away.
“It’s ok,” he says. “There’ll be more storms.”
“Nah,” I reply. “I think I’m done.” I gaze down the empty highway, suddenly driftless.
The clouds can keep their answers, if that’s the price they want me to pay.
S. G. Larner is a denizen of Brisbane, Australia, where she complains about the heat, wrangles three children, and explores the dark underbelly of the world in her writing. Her work has appeared in Aurealis and Vine Leaves Literary Journal among other places, and made the recommended reading list at Tangent Online and in Ticonderoga’s Year’s Best. You can find her at http://foregoreality.wordpress.com and on twitter @StaceySarasvati.
S. G. Larner also appears in SQ Mag#20 in her story, Three Trophies