They first met Dusty in a hopeless dive a ways outside of Topeka. They had just wrapped up interviews with some local storm spotters who had a reputation for being able to give more than a few minutes of advanced warning before some particularly destructive storms. The last had been an older woman who had been spotting since the sixties and Bill had barely been able to drag Jo away as the two traded near-miss stories well into the evening.
The bar featured a local metal band so bad that when Jo threatened to throw her beer at them, Bill had been able to successfully distract her by leading the entire room of patrons in an even louder rendition of ‘Friends in Low Places.’ The band, Suck Zone, stopped in dismay, except for the drummer who launched himself onto the bar counter and line-danced off tempo around their glasses until Jo stopped glaring and bought him a whiskey as a cease-fire.
He toasted them both, sized them up, and asked Jo to come back to his van with him.
You could barely hear Bill’s indignant sputtering over Jo’s wild laughter.
Dusty took no offense and was cheerfully deflected into explaining his band name, a topic of conversation which was evidently his favorite, as he pulled some well-worn Polaroids out of a back pocket of him standing on a roadside filming, with a tornado (maybe an F2?) visible behind him.
“You have a LDK90?” It sounded like an idle question but after chasing storms with Jo for over a year, Bill already knew better.
“Jo, NO,” said Bill. Jo didn’t even glance at him, visions of video documentation flashing before her eyes.
“Shit yeah! Bought her broken but was able to get Sally rolling sweet again. Nearly indestructible - we’ve been through a lot together.”
“You named your camera Sally?”
“Ride, Sally ride!”
“Son of a bitch!” Bill leaned on his horn, but the lunatic in the pick-up in front of him kept right on swerving and changing speeds, heading right towards the tornado that was forming a few miles ahead.
He looked out his left window where he had a clear line of site. His shitty windshield wipers were about done in by the hail.
Something wasn’t right.
He hit the gas, riding right up to the truck’s bumper, and then tapped it, before slowing down and swerving as the vehicle in front slammed on the breaks and nearly spun out. He pulled over just ahead, and glanced in his rear view mirror as a small, blonde, screaming ball of rage leapt out of the other car and ran towards him, spewing profanity. She seemed oblivious to the falling ice.
“Are you insane?!” she screamed.
He climbed out of his car and walked around to the front to check the bumper. He had just hit her lightly. There was barely a scratch - no worse than the debris he’d see later.
“Lady, I’m not the crazy one here. If you keep going this way you’re gonna miss it entirely. Look - it’s about to shift.”
She didn’t ask how he knew she was aiming for the tornado, rather than fleeing it.
“You don’t know that. And what do you care anyway?”
Her hair was plastered to her head already but she didn’t seem to notice as she inspected her own bumper. His heart skipped a beat and he didn’t hesitate for a second.
“I’m pretty sure. Feel that? She’s definitely going to veer. I saw a side-road about a mile back. We could cut over and probably intercept it just over there,” he pointed.
That got her attention. She considered for a moment and then nodded.
“You navigate. I’ll drive.”
He was going to offer to drive since she was clearly a menace but it was too late and she was off. He had to jog to get to the passenger seat before she put them in a hard reverse. Her dash was covered in maps.
The back seat looked like someone had been sleeping there.
“You always have to do things the hard way?” he asked as she completed the U-Turn and sped off.
The woman he would soon know as Dr. Joanna “Jo” Greene just grinned and told him to hold on.
“We’re not getting married again. Ever.”
“Jo, we’re not even properly divorced.”
“I signed the papers.”
“And then they ended up blowing away!”
“I really don’t think it does.”
“Guys, you’re scaring the interns.”
“Bill, I told you I mean it when I say we can make it work, but we’re never doing that again. If we stay together it has to be because we choose to, every day. Not because we’re both tethered to the same permanent installation.”
“That’s a metaphor, Bill, by the way. She’d totally ride out another F5 with you tied to a water pipe.”
“Shut up, Rabbit,” they said simultaneously, smiling.
“He didn't keep his part of the bargain, did he?”
“To spend his life pining for you, and die miserable and alone.”
“Is that too much to ask?”
They were stretched out on the grass in Aunt Meg’s back yard, looking at the stars. They could hear the gentle wind push the musical lawn sculptures around lazily, producing a soft soundtrack to the night. Above them a large oak shivered in the breeze, and dropped an acorn every so often.
Inside, Rabbit, Dusty, Haynes, and Meg were talking over each other excitedly, laughing. Even Toby was interjecting with a few barks every now and then.
“I think Haynes is sneaking the dog steak again,” Jo said when she couldn’t stand Bill’s silence any longer.
He didn’t answer.
“I think if we swing past Kansas City on the way to Omaha, we could meet with Jeff again. Maybe we can convince them to reconsider scaling back the funding with Dusty’s latest footage?”
“Also, we should be off to see the Wizard. He’ll know how we can get back to Kansas.”
He kept staring straight up, at the tree.
“I know this is going to be rough, but you don’t have to worry. These things come in cycles. We’ll be back in their good favor as soon as they realize what an absolute tool Jonas is and - OW!” She was cut off by an acorn falling right on her head.
That seemed to surprise Bill out of his contemplation. He turned to her, laughing a bit. Leaning over, he kissed her forehead as she sulked.
“I have an idea...”