My very first tornado touches the grass of the plains.
I stand next to the van, mouth dropping open, heart pounding. It’s the moment I’ve been waiting for, saved money for, begged my uncle to book us for the Wild Weather Storm Chasing Tours for.
Uncle Cassius swears next to me, equally in awe. It barely cuts over the wind rushing towards the distant funnel. Waves of grass bow down to the twister, whipped down by the surrounding air flying in to feed it. The perfect white cone stands out against the coal sky, slim and graceful. A skirt of dust spins around its base, signaling its dance through a field a few miles away.
“Beautiful!” Kyle, our storm chaser guide, snaps a photo for his website. He steals a glance at me and smiles. He’s all enthusiasm, joy that we’ve found our prey. “Don’t worry. We’re safe. It’s heading to the east. It’ll pass no closer than a couple of miles to our north.”
I want his job someday.
“I’m not scared,” I said, but my shaky voice betrays me. Who am I kidding? Kyle’s an experienced chaser–twenty years–but this is a real tornado. In person. Live. I never realized it would be this intense, this breathtaking. A hollow feeling fills my stomach like I’m plunging down the first hill of a roller coaster.
The tornado curves, almost like it’s leaning to the side for a better look at something. At us? It’s a silly thought, one that makes me laugh. The thunderstorm spins slowly above it, low and menacing. Thunder claps. It’s enough to remind me that the storm in front of me isn’t just beautiful. It’s a predator, entrancing like a cobra and ready to strike.
Good thing there’s no houses or buildings in its way. Only farmland stretches from horizon to horizon.
“Allie. Forget your camera?” Uncle Cassius slaps me on the arm, smiling. It’s a tense smile. So I’m not the only one with some nerves going.
I pull it out of my pocket and fumble with the slim case, fingers hunting for the button. The camera zings to life. Behind it, the tornado looms a bit larger, gaining strength and racing across the ground. More dust kicks up around the perfect white of the twister.
“Now I can really prove to everyone at school how crazy I am.” I give Uncle Cassius a nervous chuckle. The camera trembles in my hands as I catch the tornado in my view, click, and seal it in my memory forever.
I’m having the most insane summer vacation of my entire high school.
I lift the camera for another shot, backing up to squeeze the tornado into the viewport. I click another picture and lowered the camera again for another look.
My heart jumps.
The tornado looms larger, taller. Kyle holds his hand up to his face, squinting for a better view. Even Uncle Cassius goes quiet, stiffening and taking a step back towards the tour van.
All at once I understand.
The tornado has changed course.
Kyle turns. Real fear widens his features.
“Get in the van,” he shouts.
* * * * *
The one big thing I can recall from those first ten seconds is the roar, like a distant train growing closer. The wind whips my hair back, trying to pull me back out of the van. It feels like the twister’s right behind me already, coming down for the kill.
I slam the door on it. The funnel’s much bigger behind the glass, so much that I can’t see the top of it anymore.
Uncle Cassius snaps on his seat belt next to me. Kyle starts it up, punches the gas, and gets us back on the road to nowhere.
I toss my camera to the floor. My hands fumble with the seat belt. The van speeds up, slamming me into the seat. The specter of the tornado closes in, whipping across the field towards us. I’ve heard of tornadoes making sudden turns like this but I never realized it could happen this fast. It rips across the field, coming straight at us. My heart beats on a runaway course. My mind locks into overdrive. I feel like that news crew they always have on tornado shows, that one that survived by hiding under that overpass. Will Kyle make us get out and climb under one? They’re actually bad places to hide. That news crew got off lucky. Kyle knows better. He’s been chasing storms longer than I’ve been alive.
Only green and yellow spreads out ahead. No shelter for miles. Worse, no ditches. The radar on Kyle’s laptop is covered in ugly red and orange blotches like Nebraska has sores.
A hole of panic opens up inside me and for the first time, I regret coming on this vacation.
“Can’t you go faster?” Uncle Cassius leans forward in his seat, gaze hard, arms trembling.
Uncle Cassius never loses his cool.
Not even when I accidentally set his Persian rug on fire when I was seven and broke my arm at the age of nine.
Outside, the tornado grows so close that I could only see the bottom half of the funnel. The van bounces along every speed bump on the highway, every uneven spot. My stomach heaves. I’m going to be sick right here. It’s my stupid fault we’re in this mess.
“I don’t understand.” Kyle punches the gas harder, making the van jump. He turns his head like Linda Blair in the Exorcist, eyes widening. “The tornado should not be moving this way.”
He’s right. It shouldn’t. But it is.
The funnel reaches the road behind us, twisting harder, kicking up earth higher and higher. We’ve gotten out in front of it. I breathe a sigh of relief. Kyle and Uncle Cassius do the same. It’ll cross the road and forget all about us.
Kyle lets off the gas a little and the whine of the engine calms some. “We’re safe now. That was highly unusual. I’ve never seen a tornado turn like that in my career.” There’s a hint of an apology in his voice.
“Well, that was a close one, wasn’t it, Allie?” Uncle Cassius hugs me from the side.
“Yeah,” I say, willing my heart to slow down. At least I can think straight now. Can I even do another two days of this?
Wow, what a dumb idea this was.
But I still can’t resist another look at the storm. I turn as far as my seat belt allows.
My guts fall out of me all over again.
The tornado’s still on the road, bigger than ever. It can’t be.
The twister has turned again. It’s coming right up behind us. Rolling dust eats the entire highway. There’s tornado taking up the whole view of the back window. Dust rips to the sides. The bottom of its funnel spins with fury, big enough to swallow a house whole. Its roar screams against the outside of the van, shaking the seat, pushing the whole van to the side.
It’s no longer beautiful.
“Ohmigod,” I say, sucking in a breath. “Um…Kyle? Stomp on the gas. Just saying.”
“I know!” he snaps. His knuckles turn white on the steering wheel. The van lurches again but he maintains control.
“Allie, get down!” Uncle Cassius puts his huge hand on my back and pushes me towards the floor. The seat belt cuts into my throat.
What good is it going to do? If the tornado lifts the car–
I’m going to die.
I begged to go on this trip and now Uncle Cassius is going to die too.
The windows shatter with a deafening boom and the wind screams in my ears. AllieAllieAllieAllie…
I can’t breathe.
Uncle Cassius shouts something. Kyle yells. If I’m screaming, I can’t tell. The storm’s sucking it right out of me. Windy hands seize my arms, my legs.
My safety belt snaps, whipping against my leg. I cry out with the sting. The seat disappears under me.
The tornado’s ripping me right out of the van.
The world turns to a white and brown roar. The van’s gone. I have no time to cry out to Uncle Cassius before the world snaps to black and silence takes the place of all.