This story is by Ashlyn McKayla Ohm and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The last thing Sherri Larson needed was another storm in her life.
Huddled in the heavy darkness of what was little better than a metal box, Sherri wrapped her arms around her knees and willed her heart rate to steady. Just above her head, growling thunder reminded her that the danger was far from over. In fact, it was only beginning.
She should have known something was wrong that morning. The day had been bright and cloudless, but far too hot for late September on the Kansas prairie. Around noon, dark clouds had begun boiling on the horizon. Still, she’d never dreamed things could turn so deadly—not until the tornado sirens began screaming, and she’d seen the lethal wall clouds for herself, spinning relentlessly across the plains toward the small town where Sherri owned and operated a diner.
At least she had this tornado shelter—a small metal room, buried underground and accessed through a trapdoor in the diner’s kitchen floor. She couldn’t bear to consider what would become of everything aboveground.
“Mom?” Her thirteen-year-old son never allowed her to see him cry, but she could detect a tremor in his voice. “Do—do you still have that lantern in here?”
Focus. She had to stay calm for her son’s sake. “Yes, Austin.” She forced herself to sound reassuring. “Give me just a second, okay?”
She fumbled in the dark corner of the shelter until her fingers grazed the cold metal of the battery-operated lantern. It took a few tries to find the switch, but at last a light flickered forth, revealing the faces of the others in the room. Brave Austin, chewing his lip, his eyes anxious beneath his ginger hair. And—Jim.
Wouldn’t you know that during the worst storm she’d ever experienced, she would have someone like Jim in the diner? When he’d drifted in earlier in the afternoon, he’d instantly made Sherri uneasy. He’d been her only customer, most people having chosen to brave the impending storms at home. She’d reminded herself that he’d only be in the restaurant long enough to have a meal, but then the approaching tornado had driven them all to the shelter.
The wind was strengthening, creating a rushing sound not unlike tumultuous ocean breakers. Sherri had to distract herself somehow. “How’s the light?” She glanced at Austin. “Does it help?”
Despite his nod, fear echoed in his eyes. Jim, however, appeared completely relaxed. “I’m not a fan of darkness, so thank you, ma’am.” He peered at Austin. “You all right, kid?”
“Just nervous.” Coming from such a stoic boy, the admission was telling.
“Relax.” Jim adjusted the multicolored bandana wrapped around his head, then brushed one hand against his ragged beard. “I’ve been through twisters before. A whole lotta wind and a whole lotta noise, and then gone.”
Leaving a wreck behind them! Jim’s callous attitude was snagging on the raw edges of Sherri’s anxiety. “Sir, you must not be from Kansas. Out here a tornado is no joking matter.”
Her tone had been frosty, but Jim didn’t seem chastened. “No, ma’am. I’m from farther north.”
“Then perhaps you don’t understand that for us, this tornado is a very scary situation.” Really, shouldn’t that be obvious to anyone? Frustration smoldered within Sherri’s soul.
“I see that.” Jim nodded. “But, begging pardon, ma’am, we’re safe in here. Never met a twister yet that dug underground.”
The man was impossible! “I’m worried about our business. If a tornado blows it away, we have nothing left.” The words were out before Sherri realized she’d probably augmented Austin’s fears.
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that.” Jim fingered the chipped beads dangling around his neck. “There’s always something left after a storm.”
Something left? Fragments of trash? Ruined dreams? Bleak futures and impossible bills and hopeless souls? Sherri hugged her knees harder and stared at the lantern. Such an absurd comment didn’t deserve a response.
The sound of tearing paper made her glance in Jim’s direction again. When she did, she could barely believe her eyes. The man was unwrapping the tuna melt he’d ordered just before the sirens began blaring. Meeting her gaze, he held out the sandwich. “Care for a bite?”
As she shook her head, Sherri didn’t know whether to be amused or infuriated. Or both. Jim began eating with as much relish as if he were in a five-star restaurant instead of a dim storm shelter. “Mm.” Around a mouthful of food, he managed, “You make darn good sandwiches, ma’am.”
“My mom can do anything.” Austin smiled affectionately at Sherri as he spoke. Despite their circumstances, she felt her heart sing. Oh, if only the tornado would spare them. For Austin’s sake.
“I’ll bet.” Jim rubbed his nose, squinting at Sherri. “Ma’am, try not to worry, okay?”
Like telling a fish to try not to get wet. Sherri gave an enraged laugh. “Right.” Panic entwined itself around her throat. “I’m a single parent with a son to raise, I’m buried in debt, and my one source of income is in jeopardy.” She glared at Jim. “And you want me to just sit here and do what—pray?”
“Might not be a bad idea.” Jim tilted his head to the side. “You don’t believe prayer works?”
“Maybe, maybe not.” Sherri was developing a headache from the odor of food in the confined space. Or maybe from Jim. “Let me just say, I prayed hard when my husband got sick. And it did nothing.”
The memory was old now, so the bitterness that surged into Sherri’s soul surprised her. “There he lay, in a hospital bed. Always the eternal optimist. Always sure he would get better. Always telling me that everything would be okay. Right up until the day he died.”
“I’m truly sorry, ma’am.” Jim sighed. “Forgive me for saying so, but you know, ‘okay’ doesn’t always mean things work out the way we want.”
The comment made no sense. Sherri just shook her head, swallowing to ease the tightness in her throat. She couldn’t let this conversation get her so unbalanced—certainly not at a time like this.
“Just remember, sometimes—” There was a depth and strength to Jim’s eyes that Sherri hadn’t noticed before. “Sometimes the good Lord allows the storm to take some things.”
“Why?” Sherri didn’t know if the question was directed at Jim…or the God she’d once believed in.
But before Jim could respond, she heard the sound she’d been dreading. A hungry roar overhead, like the onslaught of a freight train.
“Well.” Jim glanced upward. “Seems this storm is here.”
A wrenching crash confirmed his statement. As the roaring intensified, punctuated by noises violent enough to make the walls of the little room vibrate, Sherri reached for Austin, holding him tightly. Then she squeezed her eyes shut and did something she hadn’t in a long time.
It seemed like a torturous eternity before Austin tentatively raised his head. “Mom, I think the storm’s subsiding.”
He was right. The roaring was gone…but in its place was something even worse. The steady swish of rain directly overhead.
“No…” Sherri scrambled to her feet and flung open the trapdoor. A gush of cold rain in her face was her only greeting. And as she peered up at the gray sky, she knew this could mean only one thing.
The diner was gone.
Dazed, she sank to the floor, emotions stacking up inside. Sobs began welling upwards, carrying the weights on her heart: fear…regret…grief…despair…anger.
A hand on her back startled her. She glanced up to see Jim, his eyes glistening—surely he wasn’t crying.
“Sherri, you asked me earlier why storms have to happen.”
She was far too distraught to answer him, but he continued anyway. “Well, when a storm comes through, what’s really important is always still standing after the skies clear.”
He glanced at Austin, crouched helplessly in the corner. “You got your boy. And you got faith. And those two will always stand after any storm.”
The words soaked into Sherri’s soul like water into parched ground. As she slowly stood, Jim cocked his head. “I think the storm’s about over for you two.”
“Mom?” Sherri turned away from Jim at Austin’s question. “Are we going to be okay?”
“Come here.” Sherri held out her arms, and Austin ran to her. Clinging to her son, she glanced through the trapdoor again—and gasped. The clouds were just beginning to crack, and overhead was the most breathtaking rainbow she had ever seen.
“Jim!” He would appreciate this. “Jim, do you see—”
Her words dwindled into amazement as she scanned the shelter. Jim had disappeared. The only clue that anyone else had been in the room was a half-eaten tuna melt folded neatly in its wrapper.
A sense of awe as wide as the Kansas prairie stretched across Sherri’s soul. She clutched Austin tighter and gazed at the rainbow. “Yes, Austin.” Faith was spreading its wings in her heart. “We’re going to be okay.”