No Escape From the Storm
By Joel Tagert
Art by Caitlyn Grabenstein
Published Issue 102, June 2022
The storm kept coming.
The first time Kadi and Aliya were in the drive-thru of a Burger King in Fruita, Colorado. Kadi was behind the wheel of her car, a 2003 Ford Taurus she’d bought for eleven hundred dollars from a couple in Casper who lived in a filthy-ass apartment with four dogs and three cats. The car was kind of a piece of shit and gobbled gas like crazy, but it ran and that was the important thing. She had high hopes it would go the distance to San Diego.
The storm seemed to come from nowhere. One minute, blue June skies, the next, whipping wind, dust and debris, thick clouds boiling. When the first gusts sent a spray of dust through the open windows, Aliya stiffened, head jerking toward the horizon. She grabbed Kadi’s hand like her girlfriend was going to fly away if she didn’t hang on. “We need to go,” she whispered.
“I’m sorry, what?” Kadi knew Aliya was a bit of a weirdo, but she’d never seen her have a panic attack. This was new.
Aliya turned, and Kadi saw she was far gone. She was literally shaking. “We need to go now. We need to get on the highway and drive as fast as we can away from here.”
“Hey babe, I don’t know what’s happening for you, but –”
“Please! It’s important!”
Kadi pursed her lips, but what the hell, there was always another drive-thru. “All right, all right, let’s go. Fuck this popsicle stand, right?”
So she pulled out of the line and flipped around in the parking lot to head back toward the on-ramp. As she did, she saw a funnel start to descend toward the low scrub hills. Suddenly Aliya’s reaction didn’t seem so unreasonable. “Holy shit.” Her foot stomped on the gas like she was wearing concrete boots. She’d never been more grateful for a twenty-year-old V6.
“That was crazy. So crazy. I can’t believe you saw it so early. It looked like it was headed right toward us. Even as we were driving away, it was like it was following us down the highway. Crazy shit. Never seen anything like it. We should have recorded it, we could be fucking YouTube stars right now. You were scared, you were so scared, huh? Thought we were going to be like Dorothy, but without a witch to land on. Crazy shit.”
Even as she ranted, still buzzing on adrenaline, Kadi rubbed Aliya’s smooth brown thigh, hoping it might calm her down. Aliya still seemed in shock, barely speaking, constantly looking behind them, her small frame quivering. “It’s okay,” Kadi said. “It was just a freak storm.”
“Just keep driving,” Aliya said.
So they did, though they had to stop for gas and food eventually, and they’d already been driving for hours. They passed through town after dusty town, following the highway west and south. Kadi had a phone, but she preferred not to use it for directions (she hated having a robot telling her where to go), and the connection was spotty out here anyway. Anyway she kind of liked to flip between radio stations as they drove, hear whatever weird shit was playing out in the boonies.
She’d met Aliya just days earlier in Sheridan. Girl was wandering barefoot in the street like a ghost. At first Kadi assumed she was tripping, but eventually she realized that’s just how Aliya was – constantly looking around in wonder and terror. She thought then, and she thought now, that someone must be after her. Drug dealer, shitty boyfriend, whatever.
When Kadi mentioned the time she’d spent surfing in La Jolla, Aliya was fascinated. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
“Like what, the ocean?” Aliya shook her head. “Seriously? Shit, girl, let’s go.” And that’s just what they did, cause that’s how Kadi rolled. And how Aliya rolled too, apparently.
They finally stopped for the night at a nowhere truck stop called the Cameron Trading Post. “Do we have to?” Aliya asked.
“I have to, yeah. Otherwise I’m gonna fall asleep at the wheel, and I feel like you might too, even if you knew how to drive.” Which she didn’t, by her own admission. “Soon as the sun comes up we’ll be out of here. Be in San Diego by suppertime, I promise.”
The Cameron Trading Post had a motel, but Kadi was much inclined to save the six hundred dollars she had to her name for food, emergencies and molly. So they reclined their seats and Kadi turned toward the strange, willowy girl she’d found. “What are you running from, though? A guy?”
Aliya shrugged. It was that combination of vulnerability and strength that made her irresistible. “A lot of guys. But maybe more like a place.”
Aliya shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. It’s far away now.”
Kadi woke to rain slapping the windshield and Aliya shaking her arm. “Start the car. We need to go.”
“Again? Are you serious?”
“I’m serious! Go! Go!” The girl was yelling. Kadi was going to tell her to get a grip when a crack of thunder and blinding flash of lightning shut her up. That was close by, really close. She looked out the window, and lightning flashed again. She saw it strike one of the parking lot lights with a hail of sparks: and it was followed by another, and another, and another, until it seemed some electrical spirit was dancing toward them on feet of twitching blue fire. Shocked to action, Kadi turned the key in the ignition – and nothing happened. The battery was dead. “Fuck!”
“What do we do?”
Putting her head down, she grabbed her bag from the back seat and jumped out. The third vehicle she tried was unlocked, and she liked the look of it: some fancy sports car from the sixties or seventies. Old cars were good, because old cars you could hotwire. A second later Aliya was in the passenger seat, holding nothing whatsoever.
It took her a minute, and all the while the noise was rising, a terrible crescendo. Then she got the wires out of the dash and connected – a little trick a convict cousin had shown her – and she put it in gear.
They shot out there like a bullet from a gun. In her rearview mirror she thought she glimpsed the twisting talon of the lightning-veined tornado tearing the gas station apart.
“What the fuck?” she kept repeating, and Aliya was curled up crying in her seat.
The panic had caught Kadi now. It made no sense. What were the odds of two storms finding them like that? She turned on the radio and listened to the storm warning again and again, as though it hadn’t already happened. The rain was heavy at first and would have felt more dangerous, except that the area they were traveling was mostly flat, and eventually they outran it.
“I need to tell you something,” Aliya said finally, hours later, when they had passed into California and the sky was lightening to gray. “I think the storm’s coming for me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s not random. It’s coming for me. It wants to take me back.”
Kadi chewed on this. “Listen, don’t take this the wrong way. But thinking you can control the weather, it’s a sign of …” She didn’t want to say mental illness. “It’s not real. This is just a freak thing, we just got caught in the middle of some freak weather.”
Aliya shook her head vigorously, black hair shaking. “You’re wrong. You know how I know? Because that wasn’t the second time. It was the third. And it’ll happen again. You’ll see.”
“What was the first time, then?”
Aliya chewed her lip, then finally told her. “I’m not from here. I don’t just mean from this state, California, or wherever. Where I’m from, it’s like this, but worse, much worse. The soldiers there were rounding people up. They had a list. We were trying to get out of the city, but we were stopped by the soldiers and I think they were going to take my mom and dad. And then the storm came.
“It was just like those other ones. It came out of nowhere. There was lightning and thunder and dust and everything blowing apart. I thought we were going to die. Maybe I did die. Because when it stopped, and I opened my eyes, I was here, in another world. Your world.”
Kadi understood. Aliya was stone crazy. Thinking you were dead already, that was another sign. “You think I’m crazy,” Aliya said, seeing her expression.
Kadi sighed. “Look, I think the world is crazy. And the last forty-eight hours especially have been crazy for both of us, and we’ve hardly slept. We should –”
Aliya grabbed her arm. Immediately Kadi knew, knew even as she turned her head what she would see.
The storm seemed to rise up from the dust of the desert through which they rode, whipping the sand into a frenzy, the moon and stars still visible through the clouds. Lightning flashed in its depths, sparks from a desert djinn’s fingers. Aliya shook her head. “We can’t get away.”
“The hell we can’t,” Kadi said, and gunned it.
They tore across the desert, road lost in the dust, car roaring beneath them. The storm was right behind them. They hit an incline and jumped, and for a stomach-lifting moment Kadi was certain the storm was going to lift the heavy car right into its maw; but they slammed down again, shocks crunching.
Finally, amid the chaos, Aliya laid her hand on Kadi’s arm. “Stop. Stop the car. Let me out.”
“Let me out. It wants me. I think once it takes me, it’ll just go away.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I do, though. But if you’re with me, you’ll die too, I think. Like all those people back at the gas station.”
Kadi shook her head, but maybe Aliya was right. It made a kind of sense. Her foot lifted from the gas, the car slowing. Aliya’s eyes shone with tears.
Then Kadi spun the wheel. Tires skidded in the dirt and they came to a stop. Aliya went to open the door and Kadi grabbed her arm. “Not yet.”
She put the pedal to the metal and the car sprang forward eagerly. The storm screamed its fury and swallowed them whole.
They could see nothing but red dust, wincing as thunder cracked and pebbles starred the glass. But Kadi didn’t let up: she kept pressing them onward, heedless of whatever was in front of them. They could have run into a boulder; they could have fallen off a cliff.
Instead, from one second to the next, they fell into sudden silence. The sand and dust settled. In wonderment, they found themselves in the eye of the storm, a circle of stars above them framed by a spinning ring of red dust. “It’s so quiet,” Aliya said.
We can’t stay here, Kadi wanted to say, but instead she just let it wash over her, a relief that seemed eternal.
Joel Tagert is a fiction writer and artist, the author of INFERENCE, and a longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword.
Caitlyn Grabenstein, a.k.a. Cult Class, is a collage artist, sketch artist, and designer out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She started doing art at a very young age and has pursued it in different forms throughout her life. While working in the music industry and running her own charitable business, BANDADE, she began creating websites, ultimately hosting more than 50 charitable shows with over 60 different artists including Imagine Dragons, Jason Isbell, Maren Morris, Ingrid Michaelson, the Goo Goo Dolls, Alabama Shakes, Florence Welch and more. During this time, Caitlyn started collaging out of necessity to create concert posters. She fell in love with the process and began collaging regularly. Caitlyn now runs her own design business, CLG Design Co.. Her work can be found in buildings around Philadelphia. Caitlyn’s pieces have been commissioned by individuals, musicians, businesses, and real estate companies from Chile to Germany to Los Angeles. Check out more of her art on Instagram.