Looking back now, they should have seen it coming. With advanced technology and accurate forecasting, it should have never played out the way it had. As the old cliché saying went – hindsight is twenty-twenty, and what Ryan Gibson would have done to go back and redo it all. The difference in a few seconds would’ve changed the outcome of everything that had happened.
“I really wish you didn’t have to work today, Ry.” Cecilia Gibson flipped the pancake on the griddle and tightened her bathrobe around her midsection. Arching her eyebrow, she poured herself a cup of coffee and smirked. “It’s already bad enough that we don’t see you when you get fire calls.”
“It’s not like we get tons of calls, CeCe. And this is one Saturday out of the month that I have to go into the shop. It’s my turn. Next week it’ll be Danny’s and his wife will be the one complaining.” Winking, he ruffled his hand through his son’s hair. “How’s the pancakes, Tye?”
The child shook his head and gave a thumbs up, his mouth full of food and a small drop of syrup dripped on his chin.
“You got a five year old’s stamp of approval, hon.” Ryan wrapped his arm around Cecilia’s waist, pulling her in for a hug, her back pressed into him. “I’ll be home early. There wasn’t much on the list when I left yesterday.”
“The National Weather Service is anticipating that a tornado watch will be issued later this afternoon for several counties in the area. A weather system is brewing over the mountains and will impact us tonight. Keep it tuned here for updates.”
Ryan and Cecilia turned to the television, and she patted his arm. “It’s days like this that I question you joining the fire department. No, you don’t get a ton of fires, but they always want the volunteers to go out and storm spot. And according to the meteorologist on channel five, it’s going to be a hell of a storm season. Tye and me may never see you.”
Ryan leaned in and kissed her on the lips. “You know the nickname of the meteorologist on channel five, don’t you?”
“No. Do I wanna know?”
“Doomsday Donald. You know how the man over-forecasts. About the only damn thing he gets right is the wind. Don’t worry, Cece. We’ll grill those steaks when I get home tonight. You know what’d be really nice?” His eyes widened and he didn’t give her a chance to answer. “It’d be awesome if you’d do those bacon wrapped cheese stuffed peppers to go with it. What do you say?”
“Now I do want you to go to work.” She pecked him on the lips again, walking with him to the door. “Love you, babe.”
Ryan climbed in his pickup and merged onto the highway. There was definitely a change in the air, and he parked the truck on the side of the road, watching the clouds coming over the top of the distant mountains on the horizon. As a volunteer firefighter, he was required to take storm spotting classes, and he had just taken a refresher course a few months ago. Maybe the possible tornado watch was plausible, but it was nothing out of the ordinary. It was a little early, with storm season not usually starting for a while, but it was Texas – the weather was always unpredictable.
Drumming his thumb on the steering wheel, he took in the spectacular view. The sky was purple and orange against the sunrise, and the humidity was thick. There would definitely be some storms and Ryan couldn’t wait – there was nothing like a large system coming through, with lightning flashing, thunder roaring, as long as the severe stuff stayed away from the populated areas.
Watching for a few more minutes, he headed into town. It was a ten mile drive from his piece of land in the county, and it gave him time to wake up on the way in, and leave work behind as he went home for the day.
The population sign on the edge of Harper Springs read a little over a thousand people. The rural county was home to mostly farming families, and though sometimes the monotony was unbearable, Ryan couldn’t think of anywhere else he’d want to live. Everyone knew him and it was comforting to think about the tight knit community where he had grown up, and was now fortunate enough to raise his family in a town that was home.
Waving toward Mrs. McElroy, he could smell the fresh donuts in her bakery located right next door to the mechanic shop. She left the door wide open on purpose as a marketing ploy to pull in customers. She had the best coffee and baked goods in town.
Parking his truck, Ryan slid out and tipped the brim of his baseball cap. “Good morning, Mrs. McElroy. Sure smells delicious in there.”
“Just made some fresh cinnamon rolls. I even iced some in chocolate. You oughta come grab a couple. Aren’t those your favorite?”
Ryan patted his stomach and smiled. “Cecilia made pancakes. Had I known you were gonna ice the cinnamon rolls in chocolate, I would’ve saved some room.”
Mrs. McElroy wagged her finger at him. “You know good and well that I do it every Saturday. I’ve been doing it since you were about this tall.” She motioned her hand close to the ground and laughed. “So it’s your Saturday to work, huh? Got a lot going on?”
“A few oil changes and flats, but nothing too horrible.”
“Good. You don’t need to be in town late anyway. Supposed to be storms tonight.”
“So you’ve been watching Doomsday Donald too, huh?”
Mrs. McElroy folded her arms over her chest. “I’m sixty three years old, Ryan Gibson. Lived in Harper Springs every one of them. I can feel it in the air. We’ve had some big ones come through and we’re overdue for another.”
“You think so?” Ryan cocked his head to the side and adjusted his baseball cap. The temperature was starting to heat up and he swiped some sweat from his brow.
“How old are you, Ryan?”
“I’ll be thirty seven in April.”
“And you’ve lived all thirty seven here too, right?”
He scoffed and edged toward his shop. If he wanted to get home at a decent time, he’d need to get to work. “I see where you’re going with this, Mrs. McElroy. I know how the weather is, Ma’am. I’m not saying we’ll never get another big one, but I don’t think it’s gonna be tonight.”
“Maybe not tonight, but soon. You tell your daddy hello for me, okay?”
“Yes Ma’am, I’ll do that. I might hop over later for some coffee and one of those cinnamon rolls.”
Unlocking the garage, he skimmed his finger down the work order log. Just as he anticipated – three oil changes, a tire change, and one brake replacement. Depending on if anyone walked in, he would be done in a few hours. Starting on the first car, he went to work, half way listening to the radio as he focused on the job at hand. His mind was on Mrs. McElroy’s prediction. Hopefully it would be an active season. The last few had been a bust, and he was ready to see some good weather come through.
“The steaks were fantastic, hon.” Ryan sat beside Cecilia on the couch. The TV was on, but he wasn’t paying attention to it. Clasping his fingers in hers, he closed his eyes, relaxing into the cushions as he drifted off. She tightened her grip on him and leaned in, kissing him.
“You cooked them. I can’t take all of your glory.”
Opening one of his eyes, he glanced at her. “You didn’t have to make the peppers. I know they’re a pain in the ass.”
“I’ve had to make them so much, it’s no problem. Besides, now you owe me.”
Sitting up, Ryan nudged her. “Yeah? What do you have in mind?”
“I’m not sure. I’ll have to think about it, and I won’t forget, so don’t count on that.”
“Oh, I know you won’t forget. You’re still ruminating on crap that happened when we first got married. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about you, CeCe, it’s that you’ve got a hell of a memory.”
“We are interrupting the scheduled broadcast for a severe weather report. The National Weather Service has issued a tornado warning for Grant County, including the city of Fox Lake. Residents are urged to take cover immediately, as our storm chaser has spotted a tornado on the ground about ten miles southwest of the city, moving northeast.”
“Fox Lake?” Cecilia grabbed her phone, her eyes wide. “You think my parents are seeing this?”
“Call them, but make it quick. Probably shouldn’t be on the phone for very long.”
Ryan sat up and padded to the front living room window. Fox Lake was about sixty miles away and to the north, so they were out of harm’s way, but Cecilia’s parents and some of her family lived there. Stepping out onto the porch, he watched the twisting and churning of clouds. There was a drastic temperature change from the mid eighties to the sixties, dipping twenty degrees in a matter of a few minutes.
Looking to the north, the tail end of the storm impacting Grant County lit up as lightning flashed from cloud to cloud, the thunderhead so massive that it looked like an atomic bomb had been dropped.
“They said they were in their cellar. Did they even issue a tornado watch before?” Cecilia joined him on the porch, still clutching her cell phone.
“I didn’t even pay attention. Maybe it’ll miss them.” He pointed toward the top of the thunderhead. “See what looks like an anvil at the top?”
Cecilia nodded, her eyes red. Her brow creased with worry as she looked where he was pointing.
“If you watch that, it’ll tell you which way the storm is going. Right now, it’s going northeast, but by the angle, it looks like it may make a more eastern track, and if that’s the case, your parents should be okay. There’s nothing south of Fox Lake, so if it goes that way, it’ll just hit some open farmland.”
“I hope you’re right, Ry.”
A flash of lightning and an instant clap of thunder rumbled nearby and Ryan pushed Cecilia back inside, slamming the door. “Holy shit, that came out of nowhere.” Grabbing his scanner, he turned it on. No one had paged him to get out and spot, but maybe someone in Grant County was out and reporting the situation. There was nothing but dead air and Ryan focused back on the TV.
“We are hearing reports that Fox Lake and Grant County is without power. We are unable to make contact with our storm chaser, but we are tracking the super cell on the doppler, and it looks to miss Fox Lake to the south.”
Cecilia relaxed some, but she didn’t move from the front of the television. Ryan scanned the frequencies on the scanner, only able to pick up bits and pieces of conversations, most from departments not even related to Grant County and Fox Lake. Their electricity flickered but stayed on, and Tye stood at the foot of the stairs, clutching a stuffed teddy bear as he rubbed his eyes.
“Daddy, I’m scared.” He was still half asleep, but another flash of lightning and clap of thunder shook the whole house, making him jump into Ryan’s arms.
“It’s just a storm, Ty. Everything will be okay.”
“It’s loud. How come it’s not raining?”
Ryan didn’t answer his son. He continued to try and find a weather report, but was unsuccessful. It was a typical storm for the area, mainly electrical with high winds and a small sprinkling of rain, but with Cecilia’s family possibly in the path, there was a sense of urgency to find out more.
“The National Weather Service has now downgraded the storm in Grant County to a thunderstorm warning. It is still very dangerous, but we are happy to report that it missed Fox Lake and is now dissipating.”
“Oh, thank God!” Cecilia laughed and took Ty from Ryan. “I’ll give it a few more minutes and try to call them to make sure. You were right, Ryan. I guess those storm spotting classes are paying off.”
Ryan went back on the porch. The dark clouds were fading and he could see a few stars showing through the haze. Doomsday Donald had been right – was this a small preview of what was to come? At least everyone had dodged a bullet. The smell of rain was refreshing, and it began to pour, splattering the wood at his feet. Rolling thunder and distant lightning accompanied the rainfall, demoting the severity to just a typical spring time weather pattern.
“Okay. Good. I’m glad y’all were able to get down into the cellar. I’m sure there will be plenty of insurance agents in the area.” Cecilia nodded to Ryan, holding Ty in one arm as she cradled her phone against her ear. All the tension on her face was gone. “Okay, Mom. Love you too. We’ll come by tomorrow.” She ended the call and slid the phone in her pocket.
“Well?” Ryan stepped forward, offering to take Ty, but the child had his face buried in Cecilia’s neck, unwilling to move.
“They got some hail and a little damage, but the house is fine. Can’t say the same about Dad’s truck.”
“That’s good. That was a nasty storm. They were lucky.”
“I told them we’d come over tomorrow. Things might look different when the sun comes up.”
Ryan nodded. “Sure. Anything we can do to help.” Turning his attention back out into the yard, he took in the fresh rain scent and humidity on his skin. “Sure is beautiful, isn’t it?” Glancing over his shoulder, he noticed he was alone. Cecilia had taken Tye back inside. Leaning on the porch railing, he skimmed his hand through some rain that had pooled on the wood. Mrs. McElroy’s words echoed in his head – they were overdue for another big one. Tonight wasn’t the night. Maybe this year wouldn’t be the year.