The gathering clouds looked more ominous than Gabby had ever seen them before. Yet, she dismissed them without a second thought. Instead, she relished the refreshing burst of cold air that enveloped her, smiling as it fluttered by.
For her, a frigid gust accompanying a darkening sky was not uncommon, not in Tampa Bay. In the afternoons, they preceded every thunderstorm. But today, nature’s breath brought with it more than a predictable summer bluster. It brought with it a name. Alexander. The chilly wind spewed forth from the newly formed hurricane like a baby’s first cry, the storms outer edges licking Safety Harbor’s shores.
Gabby sat with her best friend, Emma, their feet dangling over the seawall. They looked out into the bay, enjoying the momentary cool on an otherwise stifling day. After surviving the tragedy on the Fourth of July, they needed the pleasant distraction.
Tragedy. That was a nice way of putting it. Gabby got wind one of her classmates was going to commit mass murder during Safety Harbor’s Independence Day celebration. Turned out that it wasn’t just a rumor. He planted a bomb in a crowded marina, and Gabby couldn’t stop him before it exploded in a ball of fire. It only got worse after that. The bomb ended up being an evil diversion to kidnap and enact revenge against a war hero and his wife in a rundown industrial park. Gabby couldn’t stop that either. She did what she could, saving lives along the way, but the cost was great and her failure, immense. The loss of life had left a hole in her small town’s soul, sharing the depth and darkness of the one she carried within herself.
Alexander was born in the Gulf of Mexico shortly thereafter. The town was just starting to heal when the forecasters predicted he would skirt nearby. Gabby, along with the rest of the town, was happy to have something else to focus on. She could only take so many news cycles of more and varying angles of family videos capturing the town’s marina engulfed in flames, followed by screams and disbelief. Even the local newscasters appeared to relish in having something else to talk about. Something predictable and familiar. Hurricane season was more than just potential wind and rain. It meant the world was moving on, and time would eventually dull the catastrophe Gabby longed to forget.
Like most residents in Safety Harbor, they didn’t feel that tropical storms or low-grade hurricanes, like Alexander, were all that frightening. The area, after all, was the lightning capital of the United States, and the storms that lit up the sky were far more frightening than an immature hurricane. Category Ones were a punchline, not a threat. They were fun. A diversion. An excuse to skip school, avoid homework, or whatever else they didn’t want to do. It was the Florida version of a snow day.
These low-grade, spinning storms would pound the city with rain and maybe even fill low-lying streets, but that was about it. So long as the lightning kept its distance, Gabby and Emma could ride their bikes through the flooded roads and splash their equally drenched friends. Or they’d slosh through the dips of knee-high water and help push stranded cars to safety.
If the clouds were angry and tossed thunderbolts from the sky, they’d sit in front of the living room window and enjoy the show. For them, it was more entertaining than any Hollywood blockbuster. The churning clouds flashed in the sky and deep, thunderous booms quickly followed, shaking the windows. With each rattle, Emma giggled like a toddler while Gabby smiled next to her, finding the threat of danger oddly appealing.
She had heard stories about hurricanes decimating Florida towns and taking lives, but it hadn’t happened in her lifetime. And never in Safety Harbor. Ever. Sure, some hurricanes skirted by, dumping wind and rain, but Alexander was the first one expected to direct its centered eye over their small town. Gabby prayed he would remain tepid. Neither she, nor the town, could tolerate more heartbreak.
Emma closed her eyes and leaned her head back as another strong breeze floated by. “That feels nice, doesn’t it?” she said.
“It does,” Gabby said, holding onto her tan army cap. “Enjoy it while it lasts. Rain is never far behind.”
“I know. That’s the best part.”
Gabby looked up to the clouds swirling above her like charcoal cotton candy spinning around a barbecue spit. “It’s looking nasty. Maybe we should head over to the outdoor shelter,” she said. “Spare us from the rain.”
“Nah, we have time.”
“You say that now. In ten minutes, you’ll be drenched, sitting on the picnic table, complaining how the rain and mud ruined your ninety-seventh pair of shoes.”
“They’re sneakers, not shoes. Besides, you really think I’m that shallow?” Emma asked.
“I think you care about your closet full of shoes as much as I care about my hats.”
“That doesn’t make us sound any better, you know. Stop being in a rush, Gabs. We have nowhere to go and nothing to do. That’s what summer is for. To recharge. To indulge in the joys of a sedentary life. Sit back and take in the simple things for once.”
Gabby nodded, trying to enjoy doing nothing for the sake of it, leaning back, her hands propping her up on the gritty cement sea wall. This was their favorite spot to watch approaching storms. Located on the edge of town in the middle of Philippe Park, they could sit and enjoy the thunderstorms from miles away.
The park, named after Count Odet Philippe, had a mile-long shoreline from which they could observe the clouds and rain. If the storms were coming from east and moving over land, they’d sit at the southern end of the park and watch the angry clouds traverse the small town. If they came from the Gulf of Mexico and into Tampa Bay, like they did today, sitting near the boat ramp was by far the best location.
Gabby felt a certain attraction to the park. Philippe was a French explorer who settled in the area over two hundred years ago. His elaborate granite gravestone sat in the middle of one-hundred wooded acres, but the true location of his burial remained unknown. His tomb was more symbolic than genuine, much like Gabby’s mother’s grave.
Outdoor shelters, like the one behind Gabby and Emma, sprinkled the park. Families filled them on weekends, celebrating birthdays, church outings, and any other excuse to light up small bricks of charcoal. They even held the occasional wedding during the cooler months.
Gabby could remember celebrating at least three birthdays under these wooden roofs. One for her, two for Emma. Not surprisingly, on a day like today, they were all empty. With the eye and full wrath of Alexander’s ire still hours away, most of the residents were home, making preparations for what was sure to be an inconvenient night.
Hurricane season had more bark than bite, and local meteorologists enjoyed warning of every possible worst-case scenario. Gabby and Emma scoffed at their dramatic threats of impending soggy ruin, as if their deep voices were transmitting God’s warning to Noah himself.
They weren’t the only ones bending Gabby’s ear during this time of year. Her dad also liked to jump on the doom-and-gloom bandwagon. Every time a spinning storm earned a name, his otherwise calming tone agitated like an unbalanced washer, complaining about the inevitable rise in their insurance rates. With national chain stores encroaching on their clientele, keeping the lights on at the hardware store was getting harder by the day. Even the slightest increase in costs could bring their small shop to the brink.
The chilling gusts subsided as quickly as they arrived, and the air grew damp and heavy.
“Do you need to help your dad at the store?” Emma asked.
“And ruin this sedentary lifestyle? Are you kidding me? I was about to break into a spontaneous nap.”
“Last time I saw him, he wasn’t looking very cheerful.”
“Welcome to my life,” Gabby said. “Don’t worry about it. Hurricanes are always good for the cash register, so I’m sure he’s fine. He hasn’t called me yet, so I’m guessing he’s doing all right.”
“Or he’s too busy.”
“Maybe. It’s probably best if I avoid his line of sight right now.”
“Leaving him slammed at the store isn’t going to help.”
Gabby shrugged. “Probably won’t hurt, either.”
“Can you blame him, Gabs?” Emma asked. “You were arrested, after all.”
“The charges were dropped.”
“And you nearly died in a fiery explosion.”
“But I didn’t.”
“Yeah, by some miracle you can’t remember.”
“What’s your point?” Gabby asked.
“It’s no wonder he’s a little suspicious.”
“You’re one to talk. You sneak out behind your dad’s back all the time. And he’s the sheriff.”
“That’s different,” Emma said. “My parents don’t trust me because I disobey them. Your dad doesn’t trust you because, lately, you’ve put your life in danger more than a bomb-disposal expert.”
“Not on purpose,” Gabby said.
“No. It never is…”
“Are you trying to cheer me up? Cuz, you’re doing a crappy job at it.”
“What I’m trying to do is prevent you from getting grounded again. Do you know how insanely boring my life is when you can’t leave your house? It makes me want to pull my eyes out. And I can’t do what I have sketched out for us this summer if my eyes have been removed from my head.”
“Yes, that would put a damper on things.”
“I have big plans, Gabs!”
“Don’t oh, no, me. You and I are going to have fun. Title-worthy fun. Emma and Gabby’s Insane Summer Extravaganza kind of fun.”
“Should I be afraid?” Gabby asked.
“You should be excited! You need it, trust me. After the unfortunate events earlier this summer, you need a change of pace. An escape into a world of mind-numbing superficialness, something at which I excel.”
“Oh, I know.”
“So buckle up, missy, because you and I are going to kick this summer’s ass.”
“If you take me shopping for high heels again, I’m going to have to hurt you,” Gabby said.
“Nope. No shopping. No frilly dresses. No long days at the spa. I’ve tried and failed to bring you into my world of beauty and pampering. No, I have something special this time. Something Gabby-friendly.”
“Really?” Gabby straightened. “I’m intrigued.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a surprise,” Emma said with a grin.
“If we get anywhere near Shoe Palace, I won’t be responsible for my actions.”
“Are you ever?” Emma teased.
Gabby eased back and smiled, enjoying Emma’s inherent glass-half-full existence. She was like sunlight peeking out behind the storm clouds that had a knack of following Gabby around. In most worlds, two people as diametrically opposed would never end up best friends. She was just glad she didn’t live in one of those.
Another bluster pushed passed, and they found the water swirling in front of them.
“Ooo! Check that out!” Emma said. “What is it?”
“I don’t know,” Gabby said. “It looks like a whirlpool.”
“Have you ever seen one before?”
“No,” Gabby said. “It’s pretty cool.”
The spinning water sped up, and mist started lifting into the air. With each pass, the water accelerated, faster and faster, the top of the twirling bay getting pulled into the air. Gabby lifted her gaze. The cotton candy was rotating above them, and the cloud dipped down toward the whirlpool like a finger reaching from the sky.
“It’s a waterspout!” Emma said.
“Or a tornado!” Gabby said. “Let’s get out of here!”
“Just a minute longer. It’s so pretty.” Emma took out her phone and snapped a picture.
“Please don’t let those be your last words. C’mon!”
Gabby hopped up and pulled Emma to her feet as the water lifted and met the cloud’s finger, its rotational speed increasing and the vaporous walls growing thicker.
Emma reached out her hand. “I can almost touch it.”
Gabby yanked her back as lightning cracked, striking a large oak tree nearby. Their instincts brought them to the ground as the thunder clapped in their ears and the mist from the growing tornado clipped their feet.
“We have to go!” Gabby yelled.
Debris of leaves and dead branches started to lift off the ground, sucked into the watery vortex as Gabby and Emma ran up the sandy, grassy hill. Gabby looked behind her, the spinning spout hopping onto the seawall. Branches of the trees that once shaded them whipped violently, their weak limbs ripped off and pulled into the darkening cylinder.
“It’s not a waterspout!” Gabby yelled. “The open shelter won’t protect us!”
They kept running, their feet sinking deeper into the loose soil with each frantic step. It looked like Emma would need her ninety-eighth pair of shoes after all. The sky opened and rain started to fall, the liquid pellets striking them like BBs. A few steps later, the park appeared to lose all sense of gravity as small items lifted off the ground and were tossed aside by new and intensifying gusts pulling them skyward.
“Up there!” Emma pointed.
Further up the hill, past the shelter, were restrooms constructed of brick and wood. It was the only thing with walls. They had no other choice.
The sky flashed with the brightness of a billion volts, and a furious roar shuddered through their bones. Gabby couldn’t help but feel nature was taunting them like they were insignificant playthings.
“We’re not going to make it!” Emma yelled.
“Yes, we are! Just keep running!” Gabby said.
A broken branch, maybe two inches thick, spun through the air like a boomerang and shattered against Gabby’s shin, knocking her leg from beneath her.
“Are you okay?” Emma asked, pulling her toward the opened shelter. Gabby plopped on top of a picnic table to examine her injured leg, blood starting to seep from her skin.
“I’ll be fine. It’s not broken,” Gabby said. The wound, now throbbing in pain, hobbled her as she stood. “Keep going!”
Driven by fear and adrenaline, they rushed up the steep and slick grassy mound, clawing and climbing their way to the top.
The bathroom door slammed against the wall as they rushed in. The wind’s voice grew angry outside, and the tornado’s wrath shouted out like a destructive chorus.
Around the base of the brick walls were cement louvres, which allowed breezes to pass through and keep the room cool. Above them, where the wall met the wooden roof, were open ports where the afternoon heat could escape. For Gabby and Emma, they were like holes in a sinking ship, allowing nature’s wrath to pour in. Wind, rain, and small shards of wood and sand blew through the structure, bombarding their feet and legs like a spray of needles.
“Get up on the toilets!” Gabby yelled, the sound of the wind overpowering her voice.
They hopped atop the porcelain seats and pressed their bodies against the wall, hoping to keep it from collapsing upon them.
The roof above them started to shake.
The wall trembled.
A metal trash can crashed against the bathroom door with such force that it almost came off its hinges.
“I don’t want to die!” Emma yelled.
“You’re not!” Gabby said.
She was lying, of course. There was a very good chance they were both about to die.
Tomorrow – Chapter Two
This novel follows up almost immediately after the events which unfolded in Kneel & Prey. If you haven’t read the first novel, download it for free. I hope you’ve enjoyed this free sample and let me know what you think in the comments.