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What Happened Last Storm

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Let me tell you something, kids.

Once upon a time, there were four of us. Dreamers. Idiots. Stormchasers.

And then there were three, and it went to shit, until it didn’t anymore.

But let’s back up a little.

“There gonna be weather today?” I yawned, stretching as I sleepily made it into the living room.

“Are those my pants?” Cyrine asked.

I flipped her off. It’s what you do.

“Taking that as a yes.”

Cumulonimbus—Nim, the stormy gray Maine Coon—rubbed into the blue-sky-white-clouds patterned flannel, the cumulus clouds the peaceful opposite of her stormy namesake.

“No weather yet,” said Gallia, shutting the laptop with the forecasts.

“Soon,” I said, moving the laptop to take its place, legs draped over Gallia’s lap on the couch.

“Soon,” said Gallia. “Can’t be another month till we get something real in range. But we’ll have a week of supercells that don’t go anywhere first.”

The idea that even a severe supercell thunderstorm didn’t go anywhere unless it produced a tornado—something real—was about as specialized of an opinion as the idea that calm skies meant there was no weather.

“—Fuckin’ tease,” said Cyrine from the bean bag chair. She was on her phone, probably uploading a picture to our social media that she’d snapped of that morning’s very red sunrise—which I spotted as I rolled over, and in the picture when she posted it in the group chat—which also promised storms that didn’t seem to be coming.

“What’s our fun fact today?” Gallia asked, twisting to pick up an atmospheric science textbook from the floor without me or the cat also in her lap offering any helpful movement.

“Queued since last week. Check the scheduler,” I told her.

“Enlighten me.”

“Hurricanes were only named after women for a while,” I rattled off, as if everyone in the room didn’t already know this. “Maybe from the ‘naming boats’ tradition. Male forecasters made it sexual and weird, and named shit after their exes. Until the feminists got angry. Hurricanes with female names are more dangerous because people take them less seriously, except some people say it’s the opposite now. And then we go to conditions where hurricanes get names, and the six alphabetical name list rotation, alternating genders as if gender exists. Retiring names when shit gets real. Roxcy Bolton bio links.”

“I bet that bitch never saw a hurricane,” said Cyrine. “Pure power. I want one named after me.”

“Important feminist, Cy,” Gallia admonished, flipping textbook pages, still reaching around both me and Nim.

“Didn’t she get cancelled for being a homophobe who said women can’t get too woke for their ‘responsibilities to family and children’?” I asked.

“Did a lot of liberal, important work at the time. Anti rape stuff. Not just hurricane names. But yeah.” Gallia frowned. “There’s no way we haven’t already posted this?”

“I know. But, triple checked.”

“We don’t get hurricanes anymore, but y’know there’s some zoos that’ll let you name a cockroach after your ex before it gets fed to something else?” Cyrine asked, eyes on Gallia.

“Tomorrow’s fun fact,” I said, shifting, as if this might break the other two’s eye contact. They made eye contact a lot.

“That has nothing to do with weather. And you can also do a rat,” said Gallia.

“Glad you checked,” said Cyrine, though it sounded a little defeated.

I tossed a pillow at her and smacked Gallia upside the head, displacing her glasses. “Leave my fun facts alone. Nephelle exhausted most of the good ones. And knew how the damn post queue worked.”

“Yeah, well,” said Cyrine, tossing the pillow back, tone sharpening, “Nephelle’s fuckin' dead though, isn’t she?”

Let's back up a little more:

Nephelle had wanted to die.

That was what we told ourselves, you have to remember. It wasn’t unfair, or entirely untrue, and honestly, I think if ‘Phelle got a say in it, that was what she’d want us to think. Easiest.

Still, it wasn’t easy. Nephelle showed up in memories and nightmares and the way that Nim never stopped watching the door, waiting for her to come home.

The first time we met Nephelle's grandmother, way back when, the kindly old woman who deserved a saner family warned Gallia, thinking I wasn’t listening—of Nephelle's parents, lost on a chase when Nephelle was twelve and fast asleep in her grandmother's guest room—

"Sometimes," the old woman had said, "I worry she wants to be just like them. Till the end.”

Or:

Darrell, the surviving member of the once stormchaser trio, would say, "You kids are all crazy, man," as he finished a cigarette out back of Cloudy Day Coffee, his new passion project, old meteorology gear and stills serving as decor. "I can't do that shit anymore. But, mad respect." He'd look inside through a window, at where Nephelle was taking some pictures for the shop Instagram. "Keep an eye on that one, will you? She's just like her fuckin' mother.” He’d say it to me, to Gallia, to anyone who would listen.

Or:

"—I dunno; I—I didn't mean to do this much." Nephelle's voice, choked, at 1 AM. The harsh light of the bathroom on my sleepy eyes as I swiped strong smelling antiseptic at Nephelle's bloody wrists.

We went on a drive, just around. Got candy at the gas station, Nephelle’s other top hobby, and sat in the car in the parking lot, watching the bugs that hovered around the light pole, conversation bleak. Nephelle, who was always eating something, and didn't seem to mind her weight, snapped a KitKat in half, already back to joking around. Then she got serious: "I can't wait for spring, though."

Spring. Weather. Tornadoes. Danger. The thrill of the chase. Trying to capture the indescribable.

The shiver of mortality running down your spine as mother nature roared around you.

“Me, either.”

Reminder: we're all idiots. But Gallia runs this shit, and she's a special brand of idiot.

Let’s keep backing up.

We met in a lab class our last semester of undergrad—two atmospheric science majors who couldn't wait to escape the lab and see something real up close. It was a winter graduation—Gallia graduating a semester early, me a semester late. Fashionably late. I wasn't going to graduate on time like a fucking normie.

Gallia looked at me as we shook hands that first day and asked, "... Pronouns?" eyeing the totally purposeful pixie-bob-undercut I was sporting at the time, which was totally not just a result of fucking with the settings on my roommate's trimmer thingy, and I'd totally cleaned up all the fluffy light brown mess in the sink. The bangs were also totally side swept on purpose, and not just too long. I'm just saying.

I shrugged.

When we graduated, we got a shitty studio apartment together, pouring any income elsewhere—weather station, web hosting, software, cameras, an all wheel drive van that might actually stand a chance… we hoped. We shared a thin mattress on the floor—to save money, y'know, gals-ish being pals-ish—grocery shopped at the dollar store, and stayed up late debating radio and radar equipment.

We got our online presence going—our own local readings and forecasts, complete with stats on how we stacked up against the other local sources (pretty good). Pictures, art, and clips of anything close to weather, little video tours of our equipment on YouTube. Articles and a podcast on meteorological history and science. Especially, but not always, tornadoes. The Tri State Tornado. How they formed. The 2011 Super Outbreak.

But the real content was yet to come.

Our first chases were disasters, near misses, heart stopping adrenaline, terrible dash cam footage, destroyed equipment, more lost pairs of glasses than Gallia could count, sprained joints in chaos, worried family calls. Mostly, hours and days on the road only to miss the storm, covering all of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota several times over. Little sleep, watching forecasts in shitty motels, days of eating only fast food, lightning and thunder and wind and hail and rain, an EF2 that we watched take trees, cars, roofs—

And I wouldn't have traded it for the fucking world.

But we did get some decent footage and pictures up, complete with other data and commentary. The right audience just loved listening to us bullshit about the thrill, whether we got anything usable or not.

Not all of our audience was so easily pleased, though. This one pain in the ass commentator was on. Our. Fucking. Case.

Berating inaccurate forecasts. Brutally fact checking our articles and podcast. Giving unsolicited film and equipment advice. Pointing out minor formatting issues. Virtual head shaking at failed chases, showing off a few lucky shots of her own.

"I can't stand this bitch," Gallia said into her hands as we waited to meet up with the—actually relatively local—person in question, at the new coffee shop that this bitch had insisted we had to try: Cloudy Day Coffee. I posited that this bitch might actually be a useful addition, even though it was blasphemy to say so.

"I hope she's a loser IRL," said Gallia.

The bell on the front door chimed, and then this unfairly hot redhead—I have eyes, y’know—walked in the door like she owned the damn place, slid into the booth next to Gallia as if they'd been best friends since kindergarten, and said, "You two want some fuckin' help or what?"

And then, kids: there were three.

Cyrine and Gallia continued to do little but argue for the next several months, as the next season approached.

Those oblivious lovestruck idiots.

We got a two bedroom apartment. Cyrine in one room, Gallia in the other. I officially slept (and only slept) in "Gallia's bed" (our shared ever thinning mattress still on the floor), but sometimes Cyrine’s if she wasn’t there, or I'd crash on the couch, or in a nice sunny spot on the floor in the afternoon, or at the communal workspace when I was tired of article writing but couldn't be bothered to move.

"You mad, too, or something?" Gallia asked me once when she was irritable from bickering with Cyrine. "You haven't been in bed all week."

I laughed. "Will you two just fuck and make up already? I gave you the room."

"Oh, fuck, don't tell me you think I like her."

I gave her the Look.

"No. I might be allosexual but I still have standards." She tossed a pillow at me.

"Mmhmm." I brushed invisible lint off my 2 AroAce 4 U tee.

“No."

"Fuck, man, even I can tell. And I'm not blind. I can still find her aesthetically pleasing."

"Uh huh."

"Besides, I wouldn't have a chance. She only looks at you." I tossed the pillow back.

"Does she really?"

"Oh, Jesus fucking Christ."

...

Gallia started her PhD with hefty scholarships and a flexible TA position, and Cyrine started her own business as an event photographer with the slogan, If I can shoot a tornado, I can shoot your wedding. She'd finished a photography degree last spring (which Gallia scoffed at, though admittedly the actual photography part wasn't going, like, super great, for us on our own). Any other money came from our fans' donations—sometimes we asked for gear rather than money—and some grants for research.

I'd already ordered a pastry at Cloudy Day—trying to escape Cyrine and Gallia's latest shouting match—when I realized I was short on cash. I mean, making a brilliant, manipulative move.

"Hell, man," said the owner, who also took to working the counter himself: Darrell. He'd already slid me the pastry with a wave of his hand. "You want a job? I'll let you off for chases."

"How did you know about that?"

"Kid, I have ears. You never learn to stop perkin' up for that." We did seem to end up at Cloudy Day a lot. All of us. Gallia for homework and paper grading, Cyrine to meet with clients.

"You're a chaser?"

"I used to be." He looked up as the bell on the front door chimed, a young blonde woman walking in. "Y'know," he said, suddenly sounding almost reluctant, "there's someone I think you should meet."

...

And then there was Nephelle, Cloudy Day's social media manager and recently graduated atmospheric science student. She split her time between her grandmother's house and "the apartment", frequently carting around her cat: Cumulonimbus, or Nim, the unperturbable Maine Coon, and sleeping with Nim on the couch.

Nim's Fun Facts became one of our most popular sections, pictures of quotes and tidbits written on construction paper and posed against the cat in question, with quirks like meow-teorology and tem-paw-rature. The full fact, in plain language, and usually with reference links, was a typed caption.

Nephelle had a knack for the Internet, and our following skyrocketed. Gallia's dry, dense data fell into interesting and easy to follow formats. Cyrine's photos got witty captions that got commenters going, and a shop for prints of the best stills. Our Patreon got more supporters, regular income. My website articles and the podcast got linked with deliberate routine across social media.

The next season had Gallia Lewis, Jorah Reed, Cyrine Murphy, and Nephelle Ward becoming real names in the chaser community.

...

"Jesus Christ, Jorah, just drive the fucking car!"

"What do you think I'm doing?" I shouted back.

"Oh, this is how we die," Cyrine moaned. An EF3 hit the ground running for us at sixty miles per hour, instead of the expected ten to thirty.

"Guysss," Nephelle whined.

"Let them focus, Cy," chided Gallia. We'd seen one car get thrown already, and I didn't plan to be next. But the van wasn't a typical car, and it wasn't empty, either. The already shitty rural road was near impossible to see through the sheets of rain and hail. The storm roared around us. The lightning was the best light around, for a second at a time. Water flew up on either side of us at every dip in the road.

Usually, there was no extreme driving in chases. And usually, tornadoes moved at about twenty miles per hour. We just needed to get the fuck out of the vicinity.

"We are not going to die today, bitches!" I announced as we gained distance and seemed much more solidly in the clear.

"Pure luck," said Cyrine, eyes still closed and still holding onto the Holy Shit handle, looking more than a little carsick.

"Shame," said Nephelle.

"What rays of sunshine you both are," said Gallia.

...

It was still early on, a chase by what I call the outskirts of rural Bumfuck, Middle of Fucking Nowhere, that Cyrine was on the goddamn roof of an abandoned shed, like that was how this worked, trying to get a distance shot from higher up, with less distance by the minute.

"Get back in the fucking van!" Gallia called to her from the van between claps of thunder, checking the data and the skies. I was in the driver's seat. Nephelle was just outside the van, quickly disassembling her usual camera setup. But Cyrine either still couldn't hear her—likely, as the wind had picked up—hence the urgency of getting back in the van—or didn't care—also likely, because of who she was as a person.

Gallia got out, door slamming behind her in the wind, almost taking her arm with it. Her ponytail snapped against her face, long black strands and bangs flying every direction. She ran—more like jogged, given the muddy conditions and needed caution—across the field to get closer to the shed, yelled up to her, "Get back in the van!"

"One minute!"

I think that was what she said, anyway.

"You're going to get yourself fucking killed!"

Cyrine yelled something back that was lost to a roar of thunder.

It was getting too close. We needed to move. Cyrine's hair was getting tugged out of its bun, long red strands also snapping in the wind.

The tornado changed directions. No longer getting close, but all but heading right for us.

Approximately: "Shit! Shit—fuck! Shit!" Or maybe that was me.

But Cyrine, sense kicking in, finally scrambled down from the low roof. Gallia grabbed her arm as they raced for the van, but the slippery mud under their feet, among other things, was slowing them down.

The dissipating storm hit the air over the ground behind the shed, sending debris flying, including most of that roof.

Gallia told me later that there wasn't really any thinking involved in this moment. They just needed to not be there. She just shoved Cyrine to the ground in a slight ditch and launched herself over her as the door of the shed crashed through where their heads had been moments earlier, skidding on the ground before almost hitting the van they hadn't made it to.

"You idiot," I heard Gallia hiss, as the storm was retreating to the sky, and Nephelle and I ran over.

And then, kids, I captured the best shot yet, the most popular still on our website to date. People snapped it up on RedBubble on everything you can print a photo on. Me, not Cyrine behind the camera, on a goddamn iPhone 6. Cyrine was on the other side of the camera. The best picture: the two of them finally kissing, in a muddy ditch with half a tornado, the ruined shed, and lightning flashing behind them.

...

It was a great spring to summer, even though we never topped that picture.

And after that, Gallia and Cyrine still fought like cats and dogs at times, but they smiled and kissed a lot too, flirted, went on date nights to Cloudy Day. Cyrine liked to fluster more than annoy at times now, picking the right moment to tell Gallia something as innocent as that her freckles were cute, making her blush just as they were about to film something.

I still got the bed with Gallia as often as not, as mixed schedules (and Cyrine's tendency to kick people in her sleep) allowed. If they were both in one bed and not actively in the middle of it, I would sometimes plop myself in the middle of them, if only for a nap. I, for one, embraced the seasonal gig work, nap centered life.

Nephelle had bad spells, bad first dates with poorly matched girls, bad nights, but was mostly her usual cheerful, funny, passionate self.

As stressed as Gallia got (usually) making the calls on chases based on data, and as much as Cyrine (usually) argued about the art involved, and as much as I rolled my eyes as I (usually) drove, Nephelle seemed happy and calm enough in the backseat taking some thunderstorm shots out a window, snacking casually on a candy bar and commenting on the sky.

Time passed.

The next season was going well, winding down. What would have been one of our last chases anyway, and then was the last—

Gallia was driving. Gallia shouldn't have been driving, probably. She's a fine driver on a good day, but like, there was a fucking tornado. It's a skill, y’know. She'd stopped the van at a three way intersection. I, with a sinking feeling in my stomach I couldn't place yet, stayed in the passenger seat. I’d been navigating for a bit, watching the data. Nephelle had hopped out, run with a camera to the right. Cyrine, also on foot, ran to the left. The wide funnel sped up and changed directions. It should've kept course. But it didn't.

It was coming straight for us. All of us.

Cyrine and Nephelle shouldn't have split up. Shouldn't have run so far.

Gallia shouldn't have gotten this close. There should've been time. There wasn't time to go both ways. She had to pick. I know that. Get out of there. Or we'd all be done for.

Only time for one turn. Only one rescue and run.

Gallia turned left.

And Cyrine never forgave her.

“Yeah, well, Nephelle’s fuckin' dead though, isn’t she?”

Cyrine didn't talk to Gallia for days after Nephelle died. To anyone, really. She'd hopped in the van for our escape and said nothing. She knew what the situation was.

From a motel in a neighboring town, we'd desperately tried to get news. Sat in the lobby on our phones, and Nephelle's phone rang and rang and rang and no one picked up.

"Hi, you've reached Nephelle Ward!" trilled her voicemail greeting. "I can't get to the phone right now because I'm probably like, chasing a tornado or something, so leave your name, number, and a quick message, and I'll get back to you when the weather's all clear! Bye!"

But Nephelle did not get back to us when the weather was all clear. EMTs did, calling the most recent numbers in her phone. Hit by debris. Dead on arrival. We’re sorry for your loss.

"Just like her fucking mother," said Darrell. Cloudy Day somehow catered the funeral, stretching their limits as a small coffee and pastry place, for free.

"Passionate about meteorology?" Cyrine tried, voice bright like acid.

"Dead."

...

Gallia tossed, turned, whimpered, kept saying Cyrine's name in her sleep. Unable to take it anymore, I gave her a good shake. "Couldn't tell if you were having a wet dream or a nightmare," I said. "Wasn't fond of either."

Gallia, half asleep, laughed. "She's a bit of both, isn't she?"

...

"This is a little extreme," I commented in the morning.

Cyrine had been working at the communal computer, had stood and slammed the door on her way out as she got into her latest fight with Gallia, and now Gallia was wiping down the entire computer with Clorox wipes as she sat to use one of the apps that only ran on the computer expensive enough we'd all pooled funds for it, fundraised. Some symbolic tidying of the desk was typical between users, but this was a little extreme.

"It's healthy," said Gallia.

"Actually, overuse of disinfectants is very controversial," I informed her.

"Mental health," corrected Gallia.

"I'm not sure it's even good for the computer."

"Let it go, Jo."

"Let it go~" I started to sing.

...

"I am the weatherenby of constant sorrow," I drawled, a parody of a parody. The Internet had been in and out for most of an hour. I stared blankly at the spinning loading icon of one of the radar apps. Spinning. Spinning.

"There's weather outside," Cyrine huffed.

"I am the weatherenby of Local Fair Skies Aren't Weather," I drawled.

"Can you make them stop?" Cyrine asked Gallia.

Gallia looked up from a textbook and tossed one of Nim's toys at the back of my head. "Perk up."

"I am the—"

"Oh, Jesus Christ," said Cyrine. "You're the weatherenby of Pre Season Depression, more like."

"I am the weatherenby of Why Isn't There Fucking Weather Yet," I agreed wisely.

"Soon," said Cyrine.

"Soon," said Gallia.

Nim mewed as if in agreement.

...

It's hard to explain. Like, the grief was unbelievable. It would just come out of fucking nowhere, and it felt like being hit by a train, or an EF5. I'd overhear someone ordering Nephelle's favorite pastry from Cloudy Day and just lose my shit. The cat would cry at the front door, and suddenly I was crying, too. We all did it. Way more than once, I caught Gallia or Cyrine—one or the other—crying in the other's arms, obviously too lost in grief for a minute to remember they "weren't speaking" half of the time.

At other times, we used dark banter to cope. Things would almost seem okay. It would seem like something you could make light of. Then it might get real dark, real quick, and Gallia and Cyrine would fight instead of bicker, or someone would cry instead of laugh, or whatever. Or, days might pass like life was almost normal. We started promoting GoFundMes for people who lost everything in a storm, for property repairs, for medical bills... for funeral costs.

Gallia and Cyrine hadn't really gotten together officially and they didn't really break up officially, and we were all still living together and doing the off season website stuff and all that. It was easy, to unquestioningly throw ourselves into Nephelle's greatest passion, into what had brought us all together, into our usual escape. We were all still work spouses, or whatever.

But we were getting restless. I wasn't the only one antsy for the next season, and none of us knew how to feel about that. In storms, people died. Nephelle died. We could die. Yet here we were, praying for more, like masochistic idiots.

Nephelle was the suicidal one. She was the one who got a little fucked up about the whole "lost both parents at the same time, young and suddenly" thing. Never got another path out of life modeled for her.

The rest of us were just fucking dumb.

But something told me we just needed a good storm.

...

The season began. It'd been weeks of fucking nothing, for us. Epic thunderstorms—if we were lucky—no tornado. Sometimes, we missed the entire ass storm. We'd been living on the road—eating fast food, realizing Nephelle had been in charge of snacks, trying to sleep in shitty motels with thin walls and thinner mattresses, forgetting to pack actual drinking water, doing laundry (maybe) in motel sinks. Yup. This was the life.

Gallia was on her last pair of backup glasses; Cyrine had fucked up her ankle on a muddy road; we were now making constant "we're alive" calls and posts that were more worried and grim. Nephelle's grandmother and Darrell had just kind of adopted all of us, and they weren't about to lose someone else.

We were just about accepting we were cursed. Even thinking of heading home to crash and regroup for a few days. Something plenty of other chasers wouldn't have thought twice about, but we were relentless this season. We didn't want to go home, to Nephelle's empty spot on the couch, to her empty folding chair at the little table, to Nim still crying at the front door wondering when she would come home—and we sure as hell didn't want to go back basically empty handed. Nephelle would've killed us.

We set out for our third just one more chase.

I was getting kind of numb. Despite all the "good" signs, I didn't feel any sense of hope for this storm. Nor any overwhelming despair at the idea of going home empty handed.

"Jo!" Gallia shouted.

Shit. I'd almost missed it. There it was, a funnel quickly coming down from the sky, nearly on the ground already.

Emotion finally welled up in me. Relief? Adrenaline. Joy? With a weird dash of grief. Can you see it, 'Phelle? It's awesome.

Cyrine whooped and just about cried.

I navigated us closer. I didn't want to get too close. Never again. But it didn't seem like an incredibly powerful storm. But boy, was it beautiful.

We were close enough. Out of its path, with enough distance to run if it changed its mind like the last one, but close enough for some awesome shots. We all hopped out of the van this time. Frequently, no one got out at all; almost always, at least one of us stayed. But we all wanted to get that much closer this time. To remember how worth it this could be.

"God," Gallia breathed next to me, just watching. The dash cam was running; Cyrine held a camera at first, but then lowered it for a second. Some moments were just for us. Not for people browsing our social media, safely at home.

"This is it, kids," I said, voice raised above the wind.

"It sure is," said Cyrine.

I gave Gallia a quick, tight, one armed squeeze. See? We're here. We did it. We can still do this. And it's amazing. Nephelle had known what she was about, no matter the cost. And it was this. She would want us to be here to see this.

Beautiful. Dangerous. Wild. Chaotic. Destructive. Powerful. Deadly. Perfect.

Tornadoes.

They had a way of snapping everything into perspective.

Gallia looked at Cyrine. Cyrine looked back at her. And not to be cliche, but I think they like, actually saw each other, for the first time in most of a year. There weren't like, a million walls up, the you let Nephelle die and the I had to choose, because that human emotional shit didn't belong in the presence of a phenomenon like this. It tore that shit down the same way it blew through houses as if they were made of toothpicks and cars as if they were toys.

And then the two of them kissed.

A lot. Made out, really. Like, it was kind of gross. But anyway, they were happy and they were really together, for the first time in way too long. Doing what they loved, with the people they loved.

And, y'know, I snapped what is now our second most popular still shot, titled simply, Reunion.

...

Let me tell you something, kids.

Once upon a time, there were four of us. Dreamers. Idiots. Stormchasers.

And then there were three.

And it isn't always easy, but, y'know what?

I think we're learning how to be okay.