This story is by Catherine Ryan and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A Doppler radar image filled the television screen. The meteorologist pointed out the telltale ‘hook.’ A tornado watch was underway, in October.
“Now?” Jordan said, his voice rising in disbelief.
“I know!” Tornadoes don’t happen in October. Like Jordan and I, this storm was out of season. More incredulous yet, according to the meteorologist, this storm was forming directly over us, and we don’t get tornadoes here.
We rushed outside to look at the sky.
Racing through a drift of sycamore and sweet gum leaves like a pair of children, we ran down from the house to the dock with its clear view of both western and southern skies. We stopped on the wooden planks, panting, hand-in-hand, our heads cranked back to watch the sky.
A bank of clouds shoved from west to south and a second bank pushed against it, moving south to west. In the very center of the two forces, a separate mass began to turn, to rotate. Slowly. My pulse thumped, one, two, three, four as a center developed.
A sudden blast of west wind flung my hair up off my neck. Staggered, I took a half step to brace against it and the center was gone, overpowered by that driving west wind.
Scattered raindrops, hard and cold as ice, struck us, stinging, even through my shirt. Wind-driven and pelting, a rush of rain raced across the inlet toward the dock and chased us up the hill to the house. Panting and laughing, we leaped across the threshold and into the living room.
The phone was ringing.
“Did you see that?” Jordan had held my hand the whole time; of course I’d seen it. He was joy-filled from our brush with adventure. And I felt alive.
My telephone rang again. It’s an old-fashioned sort of phone that sits in a cradle on a shelf.
I reached for it. “You should wash those.” I nodded to the bloody scratches on his forearms. He’d put the cat, Charlotte, Charles’s cat, into her carrier in case we needed to go into the basement. She was unwilling. “Hello?”
It was Deborah, my eldest daughter. Mine and Charles’s. I started to put her on speaker from long habit, then didn’t. It annoyed me whenever I reverted to habits of life with Charles. He had died two years ago; I needed to move on.
“Is everything alright over there?” Deborah said. “Did you catch Charlotte?” She had called earlier to tell me we were under a tornado watch.
“Yes, and yes.” Jordan released Charlotte from the carrier now and poured a splash of milk into her bowl. Still trying to make friends.
“Were you afraid?”
“Deb, I’ve never been afraid of storms.” She was the one who was afraid of them, though. And Charles had been. “We went out to watch.”
There was a loud silence. “We? Is he there?” Then, without waiting for my response, “You did what? You can’t do that! I’m sending Andrew over right now” Poor Andrew is her husband.
“You’ll do no such thing.”
“Mom, that was reckless! You’re a grandmother now.”
It’s not the same as being dead. Besides, they’re seven and ten. This is not news.
“Your grandchildren need you. You have to be responsible.”
“When have I ever not been responsible?” Married thirty-seven years; raised four kids; worked hard and saved for retirement; buried my husband; never drove a new car. Not once.
“You weren’t tonight, running outside during a storm. And this whole thing with that man. You don’t even know him.” Rain poured like her voice through the telephone line, overfilling the gutters and splatting on the welcome mat. Joy seeped out of me under the weight of her concern. Charles had always been concerned.
Jordan handed me a glass of dark wine and a sympathetic smile.
I said, “I need to go.”
“Wait, why don’t you come over for supper? I’ll send Andrew.”
“No, thank you. Goodnight.” I pressed ‘end’ without waiting for her response and took a big swallow of the wine. She’d be calling back. I muted the ringer. She’d be sending Andrew. I sighed.
Jordan. The one Deborah called ‘that man.’ He would have been in high school when my Deborah started first grade. Married once. “It didn’t work out,” he’d said, looking down as if he was ashamed of that. No kids. He was still in the summer of his life, barely starting to gray, and I was in the fall of mine. Damn.
“She means well,” he said.
“Is she sending the cops?” I had told him of Deborah’s concerns about him, about his intentions.
He laughed a loud hardy sound that I had to smile along with. “Drink your wine,” he said.
I wasn’t sure of his intentions either, or of our relationship, or even if that’s what this was. “Let’s just be friends awhile and see what happens,” he’d said, and I’d agreed to be open to possibilities.
“Come, sit,” he said now, patting the kitchen bar stool beside him. He topped off my glass as I joined him.
We were both grubby and tired. We had hiked part of the Appalachian Trail that day, beginning at daylight. Afterward, we’d stopped at a steak house for an early supper. No need to cook and clean the kitchen. He was so different from Charles.
I glanced at the sofa in front of the TV where my husband used to sit every evening with me beside him. We’d seldom eaten away from home. “Perfectly good kitchen,” he used to say. When he retired, he’d spent even more time there, as if evenings before had only been down-payments to that, his highest aspiration, watching the news all day long.
Charlotte had finished her milk and stretched out along the sofa back as she always did when Charles used to sit there. Her eyes were half closed and she flexed her paws as she purred. Still remembering? Did cats remember that long?
Jordan took my hand. “Listen, about tomorrow. You don’t have to do it. It’s not for everyone. I understand that.”
Jordan was a skydiver and parachute instructor. He did tandem jumps. He’d asked me to jump with him.
Jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. Charles’ voice echoed in derision.
“Get some sleep.” He kissed my forehead and I watched him step out into the rain and pull the door closed behind him. He’d never stayed. I’d never asked.
Was I, like Charlotte, clinging to old comforts rather than grabbing hold of new life that was right in front of me?
Jordan was intensely alive. His energy almost frightened me sometimes. Life with Charles had been like sleeping under an electric blanket, warm and suffocating. But I didn’t want the excitement of a house fire, either.
Stay where I was, or risk change – must I choose? Not choosing was Charles’ way. Wait and see. Be patient. Take the long view. It was certainly a slower death. Was that really the only choice, how best to die? Was it?
I woke early the next morning, silent, shuffle-footed, groping into my clothing, bumbling toward the first cup of coffee. An hour later, halfway to the airstrip, I realized I was grinning in anticipation of seeing Jordan again. I still hadn’t decided about the jump.
On either side of the highway, trees glowed in their autumn colors: russet oaks, yellow hickories, flame and amber maples, punctuated with evergreen pines and cedars and the dark bones of black walnuts and white skeletons of sycamores whose leaves had all fallen. Each kind was different, distinct and together they made a glorious whole. Jordan wanted to show me this from above. It was something I would never forget, he promised. He wanted to share a moment of his life with me.
That was the choice, wasn’t it? Not how to die, but how to live.
It was mid-morning before we were finally ready. Strapped into a harness in front of Jordan, we paused at the open threshold. “Ready?” he said.
I nodded. We fell out of the airplane.
That day, falling through a crisp October sky toward an Earth awash with Autumn’s colors and Jordan at my back, I felt love growing as my pulse beat, one, two, three, four. Like the tornado, a center was forged between us, born of our strengths, his and mine. This one held.
We were falling and in love.