Short Story: Tempest, by Fiona Robertson

bed-linenThey are having sex when the wind starts up, whispering and sighing outside. Shelley listens, her hands on Jay’s shoulders, but her husband just rolls them sideways and starts muttering in her ear, a running commentary of what he’s doing and how good he’ll make her feel. Jay has done the talking thing for years—since their first sneaky sex in his parents’ barn. The time to tell Jay she doesn’t like the talking has come and gone; it’s part of their routine, like the way she brews their coffee with four big scoops, or how Jay hangs his hat on her Zulu statue, ignoring the hat rack beside it.

The bedroom is dark. It’s just after six, the sun not yet risen. The only glow is the alarm clock as they move in the way they’ve always moved. Jay smells of soap from last night’s shower. Shelley runs a hand down his broad, fleshy back, softness over muscle, and tries to block out his hot murmurs and the sound beyond their room. If she can shut her eyes and absorb the sensations, her body will respond.

A howl curls around the farmhouse and she pulls away. ‘Jay. There’s a storm out there.’ It is early May, Texas thunderstorm season. She is alert and hopeful.

‘It’s fine, Shell. Just the wind.’ Jay’s eyes are half-closed.

She knows she won’t get common sense from him, not now. She wriggles off the bed, pulling on her bathrobe. ‘I’ll check the weather site. There might be a warnin’.’ She flicks the hall light on and pads away, tying the belt from habit, though the children have grown and gone. She passes the bedrooms either side—one a dusty guest room and the other full of boxes, an old pedestal fan and the ironing board. A knot twists in her stomach and she strides to the kitchen.

*

Shelley is leaning over the laptop when Jay appears in the dim light of dawn. He’s wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt, and the skin is puffy beneath his eyes. Yesterday was a long day, spraying the herd for horn fly. He peers at the screen. ‘Anythin’?’

Shelley shakes her head. ‘Just a thunderstorm watch.’

Lightning flashes over cupboards and walls before the kitchen returns to shadows. For a moment there is silence, then thunder rumbles in the distance.

‘Well, sure. I coulda told them that.’ Jay touches her wrist. Shelley knows what he hopes but she’s not going back to bed. She’s waiting for the storm.

When a storm approaches, she tingles and breathes and comes alive. She forgets how Jay drives her crazy with his plodding ways, wanting steak or fried chicken day after day; forgets how his idea of travel is eating at a diner in Muleshoe instead of Dimmitt. She forgets the long hours waiting tables at El Sombrero to make ends meet, the tourists off the interstate giving orders like she’s dumb as dirt. When a storm is on the way, she forgets Blake and Caitlin, with their busy lives now in Dallas. As the clouds roll in, all her nerves begin to hum.

There is a sudden thud against the side of the house, and Jay straightens. ‘What the hell?’ He hates wild weather. He’s told Shelley plenty of stories of running to his parents’ storm cellar in the dead of the night, lashed by rain, terrified by lightning jags and crashes. He has bad memories of the cellar, too—of spiderwebs and bugs as long as his boy fingers. Their cellar is much better—just a few yards from their back door, with a super bright light, and a floor Jay keeps clean enough to eat off.

‘Just a pail maybe, blowin’ around.’ Shelley speaks lightly to hide her excitement. It’s shameful, her love of storms. She knows it’s wrong—she doesn’t wish anyone harm. But she loves it all—the blast of wind, the dazzle of lightning, the whole-body throb of thunder.

Jay frowns. ‘I can’t see how there’s not a warnin’ already. There’s a storm comin’ this way for sure.’ He rubs his forehead. ‘Maybe we should go to the cellar, settle in.’

Shelley leans to pat Elvis, their snowy Siamese, as he winds around her legs. ‘Nah, there ain’t even a tornado watch.’ She stands and unplugs the laptop. ‘I’ll stay up, keep an eye on the website. Why don’t you go on and get some more sleep? You still look beat.’

Her husband sighs. ‘I might just do that.’ His breath is musty as he kisses her cheek. He heads back down the hall. ‘Get me up if there’s a change.’

In the living room, Shelley turns on the lamp and pushes back the curtains, but it’s still too dark to see more than reflections. She curls up on the sofa, the computer in her lap. Elvis leans against her, closer than usual. Lightning spikes outside and she waits for the faraway grumble.

*

Bang! Bang-bang!

Shelley jumps, pulling out her earphones. She’s been watching 2018 – A Year in Review on the Texas Storm Chasers’ YouTube channel.

Bang!

Something on the roof is slapping in the wind. Shelley’s pulse leaps at the rush of air outside—it is a constant sound now, like a giant leaf blower cleaning the house. She changes tabs and fear slides down her back. Almost half an hour has passed since she last checked the Storm Prediction Centre site. A tornado warning is now in place for most of Castro County.

She lifts the laptop over Elvis, dumping it on the couch. The living room windows frame a sunless morning. The wide skies are pale grey, changing to steely in the south, where the clouds are layered thick and mean. The only real tree on their ranch, the oak beside the barn, bucks in the wind. Stalks of hay fly past, loose from bales in their three-sided shed.

Jay’s shirt is damp as she gently shakes his shoulder. ‘Jay. There’s a tornado warnin’.’

He throws the sheet back. ‘Jesus Christ, Shelley.’ Shoving his wallet and phone into a pocket, he strides to the cupboard, pulling out a backpack. ‘I’ll get clothes and the safe deposit. You get the rest?’

She nods, her heartbeat thumping in her ears. The wind is louder than she’s ever heard it. In the kitchen, she grabs a hemp bag and shoves in crackers, bananas, and two cans of beans. Just before she leaves, she spins back for the can opener.

‘Come on!’ Jay is at the back door, his face grim. Shelley joins him with her bag, and the air swirls beneath the door, rising cold on her legs beneath the robe.

They burst outside and cross the back lawn. The oak tree bows toward them. At the edges of the pastures behind the house, the low mesquite scrub billows and sways. The horses whinny in their barn stalls, their cries faint and panicked. The wind shoves Jay and Shelley one way then the other, and hay snags in their hair, but it takes only seconds to reach the cellar door. Jay yanks it up and they descend into the room, closing the door above them. When Jay clicks the switch, the light dazzles their eyes. The shelter is small and bare, its single shelf holding a flashlight, a radio and two large bottles of water. They sit on the floor and pull stalks from each other’s hair.

Shelley checks her phone for SPC updates, but the site won’t load. ‘There’s no twister coming. They just get all riled up.’ But as she says these words—words she’s grumbled twice before—she doesn’t believe them. Not today. Something big and brutal is coming their way.

‘We forgot Elvis.’

Her husband looks at her with surprise. They are ranchers, and though they love animals they’re not sentimental. Animals find their own safe places.

Shelley pictures the cat, brushing past her legs. ‘I need to go back real quick.’

‘O-kay.’ She’s noticed that Jay tries not to argue these days, not since their last huge fight when she told him she was tired of this farm, tired of washing and cleaning and cooking like a slave when she could have been so much more. She bit back the rest of it—that she’s restless as a fenced-in mustang. That she thinks she wants to leave.

‘If you can’t find him, come straight back.’ Jay’s forehead is creased with worry.

‘I know, I know.’

cycloneThe wind sucks the breath from her lungs as she heads across the lawn. It lifts her hair above her head, lifts her robe like an inside-out umbrella. Shelley presses on, and a few moments later she slams inside the house, flushed and panting.

Elvis rubs along the kitchen cupboards, tail like a question mark, mournful and lost.

‘Here fella. Come to Momma.’ Shelley lifts him up, nuzzling his head with her chin. She’s become ridiculous about the cat, buying knitted mouse toys and a plush bed he ignores, sleeping in the armchair instead.

A series of knocks on the walls outside makes her clutch Elvis tight. The wind pounds and screams. Shelley tucks the cat inside her bathrobe, his fur soft against her chest.

With one arm around the cat, she opens the door. The force is immense, a physical blow. Elvis yowls and jumps, his claws scratching her stomach as he darts back inside. The doorknob tugs in her hand, then rips from her grasp as the door flings back against the house. Her gown wrenches open.

Rain spits from a gloomy sky. Gravel fragments sting her legs and grass blows across her eyes. Shelley knows she should run for the shelter, or back to the house, but the storm clouds have joined to form a huge, dark spaceship of cloud, shifting and building. She is entranced. Lightning forks down, sizzling bright, and thunder shakes her bones..

Then she sees it, maybe a half mile away. Like a thin, searching finger, it descends from the cloud—a long, grey funnel that begins to sweep the ground, tracing a slow, careful line. She shields her eyes with her hands, ignores the bite of grit. Her hair is wet to her forehead and her robe flaps around her shoulders and she thinks for a moment how crazy she must look but she doesn’t care, doesn’t give a damn.

The tornado churns in the fields, throwing up dirt and witchgrass, the funnel turning brown and growing wider. A group of cattle run down a fenceline as the tornado approaches, slow and majestic, tracking sideways past the house.

The turbulence fills her ears. She gazes up the whirling tube—a round, circling tower. She is breathless at the sight.

The rotation drags her body, pulls her skin and yanks her hair, and then her bathrobe rips from her body, goes flying, whisked into the air. The garment shifts and folds, turning as if examined by invisible hands. It spirals upwards, higher and higher, closer to the funnel, until it is sucked in and disappears. Shelley stands naked in the yard, her heart wild in her chest. Her body is bared to the storm.

She will leave Jay. She will take the money from her stash, go to her sister’s and figure out a whole new life. She will go to college, or open a florist shop. She’ll travel to Africa. She will be the person she was meant to be, before she married Jay. Before she had two kids by the age of twenty. Before she got stuck in Dimmitt on a dried-out ranch.

A movement to the left catches her eye. Jay is at the storm cellar door, waving, his mouth open in a yell. His hair is blown up and his back is hunched.

She tries to hurry over, but the wind makes her stagger. At last she stumbles down the steps, sitting on the bottom step as Jay bolts the door. He’s staring at her and he pulls his T-shirt off, using it to dab her skin. ‘What the hell, Shelley?’

She is covered in cuts from the debris, dozens of thin lines of blood, and there are small purple bruises too, all over her body. Jay opens a bottle, tips water onto his shirt and presses gently in places on her stomach, her face, her arms, her legs. She touches a few marks in wonder.

When the blood is mostly cleaned, Jay passes her a big flannel shirt, helps her trembling arms into the sleeves. He’s quiet, bending to her, his movements gentle with his big calloused hands. When the shirt is buttoned, he sits beside her. ‘Where’s the cat?’

Shelley shakes her head. ‘He ran back.’ She wraps her arms around herself, brings her chin to her knees. ‘He’ll be okay.’

Jay’s brows draw together as he looks at her, his familiar gold-brown eyes just inches away. His body is warm against her side. Above them, the storm still blares, but the noise is easing, like the volume is being slowly turned down.

‘You alright, Shell?’ His voice is calm, his gaze steady.

Her throat turns dry.

She remembers another day when Jay stayed calm, all those years ago, when they were teenagers. When she’d peed on the stick and there were two pink lines and she’d bawled until her eyes swelled almost shut. And he’d told her it would all be okay, that he loved her and he’d love their baby and he’d take care of them always.

‘Oh Jay.’

She thinks of their quiet mornings with coffee and bacon, thinks of riding the horses under wide open skies. She pictures the grandkids that will surely come along and the Dallas trips to follow.

She inhales sharply, then exhales. The trip to Africa and the florist shop go spinning away.

She leans her head against his bulk.

Outside, the wind has died down but the rain is heavy now, beating on the cellar door. The light inside flickers off, then on again.

***

Fiona Robertson is a writer and doctor from Brisbane, Australia. Her short story collection, ‘If You’re Happy’ recently won the Glendower award for an unpublished manuscript at the 2020 Queensland Literary Awards, and will be published next year by University of Queensland Press. Her stories have been shortlisted for competitions including the Bridport Prize, the Fish Prize and the Richell Prize (Hachette), and have been published in literary journals and anthologies in Australia and the UK—most recently in adda magazine of Commonwealth Writers.


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