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The meteorologist, p.1
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       The Meteorologist, p.1

           Blake Crouch
 
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The Meteorologist


  THE METEOROLOGIST

  a short story by

  Blake Crouch

  SMASHWORDS EDITION

  * * * * *

  PUBLISHED BY:

  Blake Crouch on Smashwords

  Copyright 2011 by Blake Crouch

  Cover art copyright 2011 by Jeroen ten Berge

  All rights reserved.

  PRAISE FOR BLAKE CROUCH

  Crouch quite simply is a marvel. Highest possible recommendation.

  BOOKREPORTER

  Blake Crouch is the most exciting new thriller writer I've read in years.

  DAVID MORRELL

  THE METEOROLOGIST is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  For more information about the author, please visit www.blakecrouch.com.

  For more information about the artist, please visit www.jeroentenberge.com.

  Smashwords Edition License Notes

  This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the author's work.

  * * * * *

  THE METEOROLOGIST

  Summer of the year two thousand and six found him on the plains of west Kansas, veering onto the off-ramp at Exit 95. Hoxie (pop. 1200) lay sixteen miles due north of the interstate, the blaring inconsequence of the town only underscored by its station on the prairie. It was a black freckle on the roadmap, the sort of place one passes through in wonderment that people actually live there.

  Peter secured permission from the owner of Hoxie’s only motel to squat in their parking lot for fifteen dollars a day. Paid for three in advance and emerged from the small office into an evening that had failed to release the preceding hours’ blistering store of heat. Across the empty parking lot, slats of sunlight glinted off the chrome hubcaps of his ’87 Winnebago Chalet. Peter considered the microwave inside and the TV dinners in the freezer, any of which he’d had twenty times before. It had been a long day behind the wheel—492 miles—and since the thought of eating dinner alone in the RV depressed the hell out of him, he started walking.

  The downtown went for three blocks, and as he moved along the sidewalk, he kept glimpsing prairie—down alleys between the buildings, beyond the dirt streets lined with shabby houses. The sun struck all that grass in glancing blows, and the color changed as the wind blew across it. Green to gold, back to green again. Endless.

  Where the business district stopped, he eased down onto a bench and stared sixty or seventy miles to the south at a supercell creeping silently across the plains like an atomic sunset.

  Bad lighting. Jazz so easy-listening he couldn’t help but to think of that single video of soft-core he kept behind the respectable DVD collection in the RV—a bride and the best man trapped in an elevator the day of her wedding.

  The waitress was wiping a table in the back, and she called out, “Sit wherever you like!”

  He slid into a window booth as a trio of skateboarders rolled by, his eyes following their movement, then catching on the bulbous, powder-blue water tower that loomed behind the school. It felt good to be out of the RV. He stretched his legs under the table, let his heels rest on the cushion of the opposite seat.

  Voices slipped through a cracked door in the rear wall of the restaurant, and he thought it might be a waiter calling out rapid-fire orders to the chef, but considering he was the only customer, that seemed unlikely.

  He left the table and walked over to the door and nudged it open.

  “B-eleven.”

  “Hit.”

  Peered into a private room half the size of the main dining room. A crowd of thirty or forty sat transfixed by two men on a makeshift stage, absorbed in a fierce game of Battleship.

  The waitress came up behind him, ice rattling in the pitcher of water she held.

  “It’s a very important match,” she whispered. “They’ve been having this tournament every Friday for the last few months. Tonight’s the championship.”

  Peter chuckled. “Seems pretty intense in there. Money on the line?”

  “Actually quite a lot.”

  He returned to his table and let the waitress stumble through the longest description of a dinner special he’d ever endured—basically chicken-fried steak in two hundred words.

  When she finished her spiel, he decided to splurge—ordered the special and a glass of Woodbridge from an unspecified vintage. The waitress disappeared into the kitchen and returned with his wine and a basket of steaming bread.

  “You didn’t just move here, did you?” she asked.

  “No.”

  “Hmm.”

  “What is it?” She’d told him her name when she first brought the menu, but he hadn’t really been paying attention. In fact, he hadn’t even looked at her until now.

  He’d be fifty-three in October, if he lasted that long, and he put the waitress in the vicinity of forty-five—short and slender with graying blond hair and thin lips conservatively colored with coral lipstick that for some reason reminded him more of an accountant. She wore a white dress shirt and black jeans and her hair had been tugged back into a ponytail.

  “We don’t get many folks, revise that, any folks just passing through our little piece of prairie.”

  Peter sipped his wine, the stem of the glass still warm from the dishwasher.

  Notes of black cherry and dish detergent.

  “No, I’ve been saving up for years to come to Hoxie. It’s the culmination of a lifelong dream.”

  The waitress shot him a slanted stare. “Are you having fun with me?”

  He smiled. “A little bit. I’m sorry.”

  She shook her head and started her retreat toward the kitchen. “I can already tell,” she said, pointing her finger at him, “I’m going to have to keep an eye on you.”

  Sudden applause issued from the banquet room, signifying what could only mean the end of one fleet admiral’s career. Peter leaned back and sipped his wine and basked in a tremor of contentment, old enough at last to know better than to analyze it, or embrace it longer than it meant to stay.

  He walked back to the motel a little drunk and a lot tired. Friday night, 9:30 p.m., and Hoxie as dead as advertised—no sound but the hum of streetlamps and crickets. He climbed into the RV and sat for awhile in the dark on the foldout sofa. Staring through the window into the prairie, half-expecting to see some suggestion of residential glow out there, but not even a porchlight disrupted the gaping darkness. Around midnight, he got up and stepped into the closet-size john. Brushed the wine stain off his teeth and tried to avoid meeting the eyes in the tiny mirror. Windows to an empty house. Lobotomy eyes. He cracked a window and crawled into bed. The sound of the wind blowing across the prairie moved him like nothing had in days.

  In the morning, he brought yesterday’s coffee to a fast boil in a saucepan and powered up the laptop. The forecast discussion on the National Weather Service’s Goodland, Kansas Website thrilled him—extreme thunderstorm activity expected along the Nebraska border.

  Peter headed north up Highway 23 and reached the town of Cedar Bluffs at noon, the sky still clear, the heat intense and wet. He pulled into the parking lot of an abandoned Pizza Hut, nuked a frozen dinner in the microwave, ate lunch, slept off the remnants of a three-wine headache.

  He woke s
weating, the sun blazing into the RV. Grabbed a bottled water from the Fridge, drained it in one long gulp.

  That familiar pang of disappointment blossomed in his stomach as he read the updated forecast discussion. The NWS had, as usual, missed the boat. A line of storms were setting up, but over the eastern plains of Colorado, a hundred and seventy miles west of his position. With convection already underway and a supercell forming south of Greeley, the party would be over long before he got there.

  He convinced himself on the five-block stroll from his RV to the Prairie View Café that he was going in hopes they’d reprised the chicken-fried steak and because he’d spent the entire day in his home on wheels. It had nothing to do with the waitress who probably had the night off anyway.

  She stood at a booth scribbling an order onto a pad when he walked into the restaurant. The chimes that jangled over the opening door caught her attention, and she looked at Peter and raised her finger, might even have winked, though he couldn’t say that for certain in the poor light. The thought of it put knots in his stomach. She wore a blue and white dress that seemed such the epitome of her profession it reminded him more of a movie costume. With her hair down tonight and her lips a paler pink than before, perhaps their natural color, he went short of breath as she walked toward him.

  “Hi, Peter.”

  “Melanie.”

  “You want the window booth again or a brand new experience?”

  He thought about it. “I like the booth.”

  She walked him over.

  He slid in.

  “How was your day in scenic Hoxie?” she asked, setting a menu on the table, and he almost responded as he would have to any other human being who tried to engage him, but he didn’t want to just say, “Fine,” because then she’d probably smile and leave and he wasn’t sure why, but he didn’t want her to walk away yet.

  “Disappointing,” he confessed.

  “What happened?”

  “It was supposed to storm up near the Nebraska border, but the forecast didn’t pan. Kind of a wasted day.”

  She looked at him askance. “It was a beautiful day, Peter.”

  “Not if you wanted a storm.”

  “No, I guess not. Well, I’ll be back in a bit to tell you about the special. You want something to—”

  “I’m an idiot,” he said, heat flooding his face, wondering if she noticed the color. “I should explain.”

  “No, it’s—”

  “I’m a storm chaser. That’s why I wanted it to—”

  “You mean one of those people who photograph tornadoes?”

  “Sort of.”

  Her face lit up. The awkwardness retreating. “Oh my God, that is so interesting. So you’re one of those guys.”

  “Yeah.”

  She smiled. Strangely, genuinely impressed. “That’s the coolest thing I’ve heard of in awhile. How’d you pick Hoxie?”

  “You guys got hammered a couple years back with a tornado outbreak.”

  “I was here when those storms swept through. It was awful.”

  “Well, I’ve been all over Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle, eastern Kansas.”

  “Searching for that elusive storm?”

  “Something like that. This western part of Kansas is the last region I haven’t spent a ton of time in. Long range models were predicting an active couple of weeks, so I thought why not give it a shot.”

  Melanie glanced over her shoulder at the two other occupied tables, then sat in the booth across from Peter.

  “You ever seen a tornado?”

  “I’ve seen nine of them.”

  “Like in real life?”

  “Yep.”

  “What’s the closest you ever got?”

  “A mile away.”

  “What was it like?”

  Like standing next to God, but he didn’t say that.

  “Amazing.”

  She looked at her tables. “I better get back to it.” She got up.

  “Melanie?”

  “Yes?”

  His heart thumped in his chest.

  “I’m going out again tomorrow. Now, there’s no guarantee the weather will cooperate, but—”

  “I’d love to, Peter.”

  “You would?”

  “You must’ve read my mind. I was hoping you’d ask.”

  It was like nothing he’d done in years, and he felt both joy and debilitating regret that in a moment of weakness (or strength) he’d exposed himself.

  The waitress said, “Glass of red?”

  His throat constricting. “Be great.”

  She headed back toward the kitchen, and he stared through the windowglass, watching the prairie darken. Kept telling himself that it was still Saturday night and he was only in Kansas and his RV just five blocks away. As if that piece of news might tether him to the world he knew.

  Melanie lived two miles out of town at the end of a dirt road, spruce trees forming a windbreak along the north and west boundaries of the homestead. It had seemed an idyllic farmhouse from the highway, austere on the morning prairie. Proximity destroyed the illusion. The white paint had chipped almost completely away, and the weathered boards and the rusting tin roof and smiling porch presented more of a ghost house than a livable dwelling.

  Melanie emerged and spent a minute locking the door after her. Came down the bowing steps and through the weeds onto the drive as Peter leaned across the seat to open her door, the pair of coffees he’d bought at the gas station steaming into his face.

  “I could barely sleep I was so excited,” she said as they rolled along the dirt road toward the highway.

  “Could turn out to be a bust,” Peter warned. “I just don’t want you to get your hopes up.”

  “Well, it’s all about the journey, right?”

  They drove west on the interstate, the sun a blood blister in the side mirrors, its light so watery and diffused you could stare it down. Adult contemporary droned through the speakers at a reasonable volume, the small talk coming just often enough to keep the stretches of silence from passing the point of no return.

  They crossed the border into Colorado at a quarter past eleven and Peter pointed through the windshield. “You see that?”

  “You mean those clouds?”

  “The one that looks like an anvil is going to be a thunderstorm when it grows up.”

  “This is good?”

  “Very good. Major convection underway.”

  Melanie squealed and clapped her hands, something free and childlike in her excitement.

  He took the next exit and pulled over so they could track the gathering storm cells on the laptop—irregular blobs of green with nuclei of hot pinks and fuchsia.

  “They’re still maturing,” he said, running his finger along the screen, tracking the loop of their northwesterly movement on the radar. “We’ll take 385. Should intercept them in about forty minutes. If we’re lucky, they’ll be booming.”

  They went north. The summer sky turned dark. Peter lowered his window, let the musty air rush in. Straining to hear thunder over the engine.

  They pulled onto the shoulder on the outskirts of Wray, Colorado. Peter killed the engine and glanced over at the computer, now in Melanie’s lap.

  “We’re in position,” he said.

  The first fat drops of rain splattered on the windshield as Peter squinted at the screen.

  He opened his door, got out, crossed the road.

  Melanie joined him.

  Strings of lightning bent down and rain sagged from the clouds in ragged black tendrils.

  “It’s so beautiful,” she said, and he wondered if she really meant it, if it touched her with even a fraction of the intensity it touched him, or if she was saying what she thought he wanted to hear. He looked up at the clouds streaming over them.

  Lightning touched the plain a mile away, the blast of thunder vibrating the ground beneath their feet.

  Melanie clutched his arm.

  “Should we go back to the car?” sh
e asked, and he couldn’t help but feel a little betrayed. You embraced a storm by standing in the middle of the goddamn thing, feeling the rain beat down on your face, letting the wind bully you, trying not to flinch when the thunder dropped right on top of your head.

  “Sure,” he said. “We can go back.”

  They experienced the storm from inside the RV, everything reduced to gray through the rain-streaked glass and nothing to see beyond fifty yards as thunder detonated all around them, the Winnebago creaking and listing against the stronger gusts.

  Melanie reached over and pried Peter’s right hand off the steering wheel and laced her fingers through his. Her hand was small and warm, and he was afraid if he looked at her she would kiss him.

  When the storms had passed, they went on, taking backroads into Kansas, the late afternoon sky going bright and clear, Peter feeling with every passing breath like the RV was shrinking, the air being compressed from his lungs.

  Thirty miles north of Hoxie, he pulled off onto the side of the road.

  “Why are you stopping?” Melanie asked.

  “I just need some air.”

  He walked around the front of the Winnebago, the overworked engine pumping eddies of heat through the radiator. Twenty yards from the road, he stopped. The only disruption in all that prairie a grain mill several miles to the east. Peter took deep breaths until the mayhem in his head had gone quiet and he could hear the grasses scraping at his jeans.

  Melanie said, “You all right, Peter?”

  The sun had dipped below the western horizon.

  “Yeah. You?”

  “Uh huh.”

 
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