An Into The Storm story
by Rachel Smith Cobleigh
She found him sitting on the back steps of the church after the screening, watching the milling crowd with a faint smile on his lips.
"There you are," Allison said with a grin, and gestured at the empty space beside him. "May I?"
Gary looked up at her and his smile warmed. "Hey."
"It's amazing how much you all have accomplished in two years," she said as she sat down.
"There's a lot more to do," he said, and there was a mix of weariness and steel in his voice.
"There always is," she sighed.
He chuckled. "True enough."
They sat together in silence for a short while. She followed his gaze as he watched his sons Donnie and Trey talking excitedly with the documentary filmmakers who had brought the new film to Silverton for its premiere screening.
"You're really proud of them, aren't you?" she asked.
"Absolutely," Gary answered. "This is bigger than anything else they've ever done and they did a great job."
"Pete would have been so proud. It was a fitting tribute to him and Jacob."
Trey's footage had been featured and Donnie had been part of the editing process, collecting footage from the locals, including those two idiotic YouTube sensations, Donk and Reevis. Although, given their footage, how they hadn't gotten themselves killed was beyond her. They were, surprisingly, not stumbling drunk at the moment, but they were happily and loudly talking trash about the official documentary, surrounded by a group of their fans and neighbors. Their catcalls and rude gestures gave a certain...local color...to the gathering, she supposed with a wry grin.
Speaking of local color––
"You smell better this time," she teased, stopping herself from elbowing Gary playfully. That she felt the urge to do that at all was a surprise to her.
He raised his eyebrows and smirked. "Hey, that was a nice suit!"
"It was, but you smelled like a barnyard."
He chuckled and shook his head. "Fine. Next time we agree to meet in a raging, unexpected thunderstorm, I won't choose a wool suit."
She laughed. "Sounds like a plan."
"How's Gracie?" he asked.
"Seven," she said, and he laughed.
He ran a hand down his face and exhaled, still smiling. "I remember that age."
"Still a handful, but now a lot sharper and a lot harder to put off."
"Mmm-hmm. It never gets easier on those fronts, but I wouldn't have traded any of it for the world."
Allison nodded towards his sons. "What's Donnie now, a senior?"
"A college freshman, actually," Gary said, obvious pride in his voice. "Oklahoma State, Film major."
"Nice," she said. "He'll excel at that. Are he and Kaitlyn Johnson––?"
"Yeah," Gary's face lit up even further. "He proposed in March, on Spring Break."
Allison chuckled. "How romantic. And fast. They're kind of young, aren't they?"
Gary shrugged. "Maybe in terms of age, but not in terms of experience. They both matured a lot after what they went through. All the kids did."
Allison sobered and nodded, her eyes following Donnie and then searching for Kaitlyn. She didn't spot the girl in the crowd, but she couldn't help noticing that Donnie was now standing more tall and confident than she remembered him being. Perhaps his father was right.
"I tried to teach my boys to regard women as nothing less than potential future wives––and if they didn't feel ready to take on the responsibility of a family, they shouldn't engage in behavior that might create one," Gary said. "So I wasn't entirely surprised that Donnie did it."
"That's admirable," Allison said, feeling the sting of his words. He couldn't possibly know how what he'd said was affecting her; she'd never told him anything about her past.
"And Trey?" she asked, her tone dry as she watched the young man laughing and turning to show a girl something on his camera.
"Trey is a senior now," Gary answered, his smile still proud, but he echoed her dry tone. "He's been heading up the senior class film project and chasing girls." Gary squinted. "I'm actually not sure if the former is anything more than an excuse to do the latter. He doesn't really have his brother's focus."
"No, his skills run more towards stand-up comedy," Allison said, and Gary laughed.
Trey's commentary and teasing camerawork had provided some much-needed levity in the otherwise rather depressing documentary about the Silverton Outbreak. The epilogue had been cheerful, with people smiling and hauling debris, but to see how hard this community had been hit, one had only to look at Silverton today, two years later. The federal disaster relief money had gone some of the way towards rebuilding the essentials that the community needed––notably, a new high school and a town hall, not to mention about three dozen other central buildings and the airport––but most people were living in trailers on their property and the community was still reeling. It would probably take a decade before a sense of normalcy returned to the place, and that wasn't even counting the continual threat of future tornadoes.
Something squeezed in her chest as she thought about how proud she'd been that day, when she'd called it correctly: the tornado would pass through Silverton, Oklahoma, and it had, just exactly as her data had said it would. No other storm chasers had gotten to the area in time to document it like they had; everyone else had bet on the path of the storm going further south, but her research model had produced a more accurate result. She'd crowed internally, knowing that she could publish a paper on this validation of her reasoning, on the prototype she'd been developing for four years; it would strengthen her application for a research professorship.
But pride and satisfaction were the last things she felt about the Silverton Outbreak now. She'd published the paper, been pleased that it was well-received, and was currently in the running for a position at Oklahoma State, but the whole experience on the day of the storm had gone horribly wrong. The loss of Jacob and Pete, of so many other lives, and her first-hand experience of the damage that the storm had done to people whose faces and names she now knew...it had left an indelible mark on her soul.
She shook herself from her reverie and looked at Gary. His large frame was calm and relaxed beside her, and he was still smiling. It was a tired smile, she thought, but she admired him for it. How had he managed it, being a single father with two active boys and a full-time career? Most days, she felt overwhelmed and inadequate as a mother, and she only had Gracie.
"Penny for your thoughts?" she asked, wishing that she had the kind of reserves that he seemed to have.
His lips curled up, but he didn't look at her. "Do you want the polite answer, or the honest one?"
She smiled. "The honest one, of course."
"I was just thinking that I've been forcibly reminded of how attractive you are."
Her head snapped around to stare at him, but he wasn't looking at her; he was still watching his sons laughing and gesturing and talking. Was he flirting with her? She wasn't even sure that she'd heard him correctly, but her cheeks warmed and she found that she had to repress an unexpected shiver of excitement. God, when was the last time she'd been with a man?
She didn't need to ask the question; she knew the answer. Robbie, of course, just before he'd left her, pregnant and in grad school and wondering what the hell she was going to do next. Thank God for her parents' generosity!––she never would have been able to finish her degree without their help with the childcare––but it had left a sour taste in her mouth. It had only been a brief fling and the birth control she and Robbie had used hadn't worked. Despite her loneliness after Gracie's birth, Allison just hadn't wanted to risk it again. She had goals for her life, and being an unwed mother had never been one of them. She didn't regret choosing to keep Gracie, but doing so hadn't made things easy.
"I'm sorry," Gary said quietly. "That was inappropriate."
"No," she said, following his gaze out onto the crowd again. "Thank you."
"Thank you for making me laugh," he answered with a smile, finally turning to her, and she grinned at him.
The look in his eyes caught her. He seemed young for a moment, and an old soul as well. There was an unexpected vulnerability in his eyes that was in marked contrast to the confident curve of his mouth, and she wanted to kiss him.
She looked down, her skin tingling, as she recalled something and wondered if she should admit it aloud. How much did she know about him? Did he really have a situation that would be good for her to get involved in? They lived quite far apart; if she were to start something with him, it would have to be long-distance for now, and was she really up for that? And what would the endgame be? She wasn't ready to have another child, and the threat of that reality made her cautious. She'd already been burned once by following her impulses without thinking first. Plus, she sure as hell wasn't going to give up her position at Oklahoma State, if she got it, just to come live in Silverton with him. There was nothing for her here.
She closed her eyes, chagrined. She was jumping way too far ahead! He might not have meant anything by his comments other than a simple compliment.
But in the context of their prior conversation...
She knew he was a good man: a good father, a good leader under pressure, and if she were honest, he was quite attractive as well. Not cute, exactly––his features were too strong for that––but definitely striking. He seemed a bit buttoned up and conservative for her tastes, but then she imagined that he probably had to be that way to be a good school administrator. He was there to be an authority figure, not to buddy around with the kids.
But what was he like when he didn't have to play that part? Had he just let her see a glimmer of something more underneath the surface?
She swallowed. He had been honest with her; what could it hurt if she were to be honest with him? If it didn't work out, she could just get up and walk back to her car––she had already said all the rest of her good-byes; she'd saved him for last, for some reason that she couldn't quite name––and they would never have to see each other again. She felt like she was jumping off a cliff, but what the hell––
She smiled. "You know, of all the memories I have of that day, there are a few that stand out."
The smile fell away from her face as she recalled the main one: Jacob being dragged into the column of fire, his body tossed like a ragdoll as it was sucked up into the roaring monster of the burning tornado.
She swallowed and set the image down, putting on another smile that felt strained at first and then warmed as she remembered the next key moment. "I remember how relieved I was when you grabbed my hands and didn't let go."
Gary looked at her, his gaze intense. His hand nearest her twitched as if reliving the urge to grab her, but he only went still as he listened.
She swallowed again and refused to look away as she let a deliberate smile curve her mouth. "I remember what it felt like when you pulled me back, when you dragged me into the church and stopped me from running towards––"
She cut herself off, suddenly looking away. Her feelings were a confused jumble. She found herself wrestling with guilt because she was using the moment of Jacob's death to flirt with the man beside her. It didn't feel right, and yet she couldn't forget the press of Gary's body against her own for those few terrifying seconds. There had been nothing sexual whatsoever in his actions; he'd only been protecting her, again, when he'd dragged her into the church and shouted for everyone to take cover under the pews.
But she hadn't been that close to a man in nearly six years and it had been the second time that day that she'd been pressed against him, a complete stranger who had already thrown himself into danger to save her life once before. And it hadn't been the last time. He'd later shielded her with his body when they were all huddled in the storm drain, his much stronger arms reassuring her when the storm was roaring its loudest around them. Watching him being dragged up, screaming, through the open manhole as he fought for his life had been one of the worst experiences in a day already filled with innumerable horrors.
Despite all of the madness and adrenaline and abject terror, her mind had chosen to commit the feeling of him to memory. Perhaps it was a coping mechanism, an anchor in a day when everything around her was increasingly terrifying. She still had nightmares, although thankfully they were becoming less common. Sometimes she woke up with a faint tingling on her back and bottom and legs and belly, as if in whatever dream-world she had inhabited, she'd been imagining the two of them spooned together in bed, roughly matching their position from when he'd dragged her into the church, and safety. The nightmare always started out with Jacob's death, but it always ended with Gary's comforting presence. Or at least, dream-Gary. It made her hot with embarrassment to even recall it, now that she was sitting beside him.
She jumped when she felt a hand touch her own and she realized that he was trying to draw her out of her reverie.
"You okay?" he asked.
"Sorry," she mumbled.
He shook his head. "No need to be." When she didn't shake him off or pull away from his touch, he took her hand in his warm grasp and squeezed gently. He started to let go of her but she threw caution to the wind and quickly caught his palm and squeezed back.
"Thank you," she said, and when she met his eyes and saw his soft smile, her heart lifted a little, and she found it easier to smile back. She wanted this, she needed this...she wanted him.
"Could I interest you in a coffee?" he asked, his smile tentative now.
She felt a lightness in her being, and a comfort and peace, and a little thrill of hope. She chuckled and ran her thumb over the back of his hand; it twitched in response to her touch. He quickly moved to fit her hand within his own again and smiled at her, resting their clasped hands on his thigh. His expression was warm and inviting and she grinned and laid her head against his broad shoulder, not caring that perhaps it was too much intimacy too quickly. They had survived the Silverton Outbreak together, and the memories of that day, so fresh again in her mind after watching the film, bound them in a quiet moment of shared understanding and shared strength.
"You could interest me in a great deal more than that," she answered, and smiled when she felt and heard his answering chuckle. Then he rested his own head against hers.
They had been sitting in that position for perhaps ten seconds when she saw Donnie glance up from his conversation with the producers, as it was clearly winding down, and his eyes landed on her and Gary. She could have laughed at Donnie's WTF? expression. He slapped at his younger brother's chest to get his attention, and Trey looked up with an annoyed glance until Donnie got him pointed in their father's direction. Then Trey's face broke into a wide grin and he gave his father an eyebrow wiggle and a thumbs up.
Gary lifted his head and waved his free hand at his son dismissively, and Allison gave a soft laugh.
Donnie seemed to want to approach them, but Trey grabbed his arm, winked at his father, and steered his brother towards a group of excited young townspeople, including the girl who Donnie had been trapped with, now his fiancée. Given the way she greeted him and how he responded, Allison concluded that they were doing well together. Perhaps something good would come out of this disaster after all.
She didn't know if this was going to work out between Gary and herself, but for this moment at least, she was grateful and at peace, so she closed her eyes and listened and felt and just let herself enjoy it.
I must thank Richard Armitage for making a throwaway comment that inspired this story (when describing the scene where Gary and Allison meet, he said, "What a way to meet a potential future wife!"––which fascinated me both because there's no discernible evidence that there's any attraction between them in the movie itself, and because it's such a beautiful way of referring to a female love interest!) I'm giving a big shout-out to him and Sarah Wayne Callies (who inspired the smelly wool suit joke) for doing a lovely job of portraying their characters in this movie. Thanks also go to Steven Quale and John Swetnam for telling a respectful story about the everyday heroes who rise to the occasion, and to the Lord, for the desire to tell stories in the first place. Sometimes the quiet moments are the ones that make the rest of life worthwhile.
Thanks so much for reading! If you like this story, or if you have any suggestions for improvement, please let me know. I don't mind if you leave suggestions in the public comments, and I also welcome private messages (PMs).
I do not own any Into The Storm properties, nor do I make any money from this story.
Characters and situations based on Into The Storm (2014) © Warner Bros. Entertainment.
This story released under the GPL/CC BY: verbatim copying and distribution of this entire work are permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided attribution is preserved.