The wind howled outside the windows of her truck as dirt and leaves scattered in rough waves against the glass. She dipped her head and gazed through the windshield, glimpsing a silver strand of lighting as it darted through the dark and heavy skies. The pop song on the radio was barely audible underneath the wail of the storm that surrounded her, and even that soft murmuring sound was lost as a high-pitched tone blared into the small space of the cab. The mechanized voice was quick to follow.
"The National Weather Service in Lucas has issued a tornado warning for southeastern Grant County in southwestern Kansas, west-central Haskell County in southwestern Kansas, until 7:32 PM Central Standard Time. At 7:04 PM Central Standard Time, a confirmed large and extremely dangerous tornado was located six miles southeast of Lucas, moving northeast at forty miles per hour –"
Holding back a string of expletives, Dorothy pressed her foot more firmly on the gas. She was furious at herself for not leaving Sam's earlier – she probably shouldn't have gone over at all, knowing a storm was on its way – and now she was worried for Em and Henry, thinking about how much it took to coax the two of them down into the underground shelter, wondering if she should bother trying to call home even though the service out here was always spotty in the best of times.
Gusts of wind rocked the truck back and forth a little as she felt around in her pocket for her phone. She had just turned it on, glancing down at the screen as her thumb reached for the little green icon, when she saw it, a gray ghost dancing on the edge of her sight. And then her foot hit the brakes, the truck squealing to an immediate stop along the windswept asphalt.
She knew exactly what it was – like any kid from Kansas, she would have instantly recognized that familiar funnel shape, if only from seeing it dozens of times in pictures and movies. But it was something else to see it with her own eyes, twisting and turning even as it curved a path along the ground, consuming everything that lay within its reach.
She couldn't move, her body frozen in her seat as she watched it pass through the open field on her right, not two hundred yards away. But even if she could move, what would it matter? She was no safer out in the open than she was inside her truck, enclosed as she was within a cage of steel, and she could only pray that it decided not to turn in her direction.
Everything seemed to quiet, stillness surrounding her as she felt her breath fill and empty out her lungs. Was this what it felt like to be about to die? she wondered, somehow unable to keep herself from marveling at its long sweep, its undeniable power and surprising grace.
The tornado crossed over the road straight ahead of her, appearing – just for a moment – to pause and hover over it, before it continued on its course and passed into the adjacent field. It was only as it moved further away and finally out of her range of sight that she came back to herself, her heartbeat pounding steadily in her ears and against the heavy confines of her ribs. And then she knew – more than anything – that she needed to get out of there as quickly as possible before the thing changed its mind and headed back her way.
Keeping one eye trained on the direction the tornado had taken, Dorothy took her foot off the brake, cautiously pushing the gas pedal until she felt safe enough to begin accelerating. Her grip was tight on the steering wheel, her thoughts no longer singularly focused on her aunt and uncle but on keeping herself alive until she could make it back to them.
But as she looked ahead, she could see that something had flown into the road, something big enough to block her path. A piece of debris or maybe even a tree trunk, she guessed, until she got close enough to realize it wasn't that at all.
It was a person.
An unmoving person, laying almost exactly in the spot that the tornado had passed over.
A tiny voice whispered to keep on driving, to get home and then call 911, because there was no point in stopping – no point in risking her own safety – for someone who was probably dead. Because who could have possibly survived getting picked up and tossed around by a tornado?
But then she shook her head, ashamed at her own callous thoughts, knowing in her heart that she had to stop. Whoever it was, she couldn't leave them out here, not if there was the slightest chance they might still be alive.
She brought the truck to a stop right in front of the body – no, not body, she told herself. Person, patient… accident victim. After a moment of struggling to get the door open with the winds still battering the truck, she raced towards the figure on the ground, the truck's headlights casting a bright white glare over its prone form.
It was a man, she now saw, laying curled on his side with one of his arms reaching up over his head. Her hair whipped around her face as she kneeled and began to look for obvious signs of trauma, her eyes eventually catching on patch of fresh blood staining a section of his shirt right below his waist. There were small cuts and abrasions on his hands and on the parts of his face that she could see, but no visible damage to his head. She reached down, pressing her fingers to the line of his jaw, hoping to feel a pulse.
And all at once his eyelids fluttered open, a pair of haunted gray-green eyes now trained on hers.
"Help me," he rasped, and then his head lolled to the side as he quickly lost consciousness.
He was alive. Part of her sagged with relief, while another part was seized by the fearful realization that she had no real way to treat him out here. He could just as easily die under her care as survive, and that chance now seemed to be entirely up to her.
Setting aside the question of possible brain injury, she turned her attention to the wound at his side, gently pulling up his shirt from where it was tucked into his pants. At that moment, she couldn't help but notice that his hips were encircled by a leather belt, from which dangled what appeared to be an actual metal sword, the decorative hilt glinting with bronze.
"What the…?" she muttered to herself, giving herself just the briefest of seconds to wonder what kind of people ran around on country roads wearing swords and getting themselves sucked up into tornados, before leaning over to examine the deep gash cut along his mid-section. It was still hemorrhaging, perhaps not as much as it had been, based on the discoloration of his shirt and the crimson stains along his skin, but even so it was cause for definite concern. She needed to staunch the bleeding, and then she needed to quickly get him to a hospital.
Pulling the looped scarf from around her neck, she wadded it up and pressed it firmly against his side. He recoiled, a tiny groan escaping from his lips even as his eyes remained shut, and she found herself buoyed by the possibility that he might be returning to consciousness. She needed him to be able to stand and walk – or at least limp – because there was no way in hell she was going to be able to get him into her truck all by herself.
Right now, though, she had to find a way to keep her makeshift compress in place. Hoisting his arm up, she dropped it like a weight right on top of her scarf, which was already beginning to darken with bloodstains. As quickly as she could, she pulled off her flannel shirt and reached around him so that she could tug one of the sleeves underneath his body, with the hope that she would be able to knot the two sleeves together and keep the length of fabric tied tightly around him. But, God, he was heavy, and it took more effort than she had anticipated, rolling him forward and then back, before she was finally able to yank it all into place. He groaned again and she gazed over at his face, at the days-old stubble lining his jaw, at the dirt and dried blood blended together like paint covering his skin.
"Hey, hey," she said softly, as she shook his shoulder. "Whoever you are, you've got to wake up for me, okay?"
He murmured, but didn't open his eyes, and she shook him again, her hand finally reaching down to cup the side of his face.
"C'mon, mister, we really need to get out of here." She glanced up at the skies, still dark and threatening, the rough winds continuing to pummel everything in sight. "You need to help me here."
There was a grunt and his eyes opened slightly, enough for her to see their color once again, and then his gaze turned itself on her, transforming with a look of confusion and fear.
"There you are," she said, trying her best to sound comforting, as if they weren't all alone in the middle of a country road, surrounded by a potentially deadly windstorm. "Hey, why don't we sit up, alright?"
Keeping one hand pressed against the wound at his side, she slid the other back behind his shoulder, and with some shaky assistance on his part, she was finally able to pull him up into a sitting position.
"That's great, you're doing great," she said, although she was beginning to suspect her reassurance was as much for herself as it was for him. "You okay?"
He nodded – or he could have just been trembling, it was hard to tell – and she gave herself a moment to look him over a little more closely. Despite the mess, the cuts on his face were superficial, nothing that would need more than a stitch or two. She did a quick scan of the rest of his head, running her hand gently against his close-cropped hair to feel for possible cranial wounds.
"We need to get you to the hospital," she said, meeting his gaze. "Do you think you can stand?"
He made a low rumble of assent and nodded once more. His face, she noted, was long and narrow, with heavy brows and a straight jawline leading to a square chin. For a moment, she let herself wonder what he might look like underneath all the blood and the dirt, and then quickly pushed that aside to focus on the more pressing question of his survival.
"We're going to do this together, okay?" She gave him an encouraging smile and lifted his arm up over her shoulders. Wedging herself tight underneath him, she wrapped an arm around his middle, careful to keep her hand away from his injury.
"Okay, so one, two, three… and up, up, up we go…" she said, doing her best to hoist him up as she stood. The weight was immense and he staggered as he rose unsteadily to his feet, nearly dragging the two of them back down onto the ground.
"We're good," she grunted as she gripped him a little tighter, and he began to lean against her so heavily that she wasn't sure how much longer she could last. And he was taller than she had originally thought, towering over her by almost a head. Luckily, the truck wasn't that far, and she was able to drag him the few feet over to the passenger's side, letting some of his weight fall against the truck as she scrambled to open the door.
Getting him into the truck was a challenge in itself, especially with that ridiculous sword at his side, but eventually he was able to drop into the seat and she helped him swivel his legs into place. That brief amount of exertion had clearly been too much for him, though: once she raced back to the other door and climbed into the driver's seat, she saw that he had passed out again, his head flopping loosely back against the upholstered headrest. Her flannel shirt bandage still held, though, tightly tied against his waist.
"Okay, mystery sword man, whoever you are," she said, turning the ignition and glancing quickly through the rear window before she reversed course back towards town, "let's get the hell out of Dodge."
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