Fiction: Storm Chasers

Read More: A brief interview with Bryana Fern

When Amanda and her friends were in their first year of college, they used to get drunk and chase storms along the bay. She was the only girl of the group; that ratio had been the one great constant of her life. Wherever the unpopular lot was, there she existed in the middle like Wendy and the Lost Boys. And when they graduated and went on to the local college together—they didn’t care to travel far like others—very little changed at first. On the day campus was closed for the hurricane, Brian, Jeremy, and Matt crammed in the back of her ’89 Pontiac Sunbird and sped down Bayshore Boulevard by the waves.

Brian was the most hesitant of the four, in practically all things. He stood well over six feet tall with shaggy brown hair that always fell in his eyes and which he constantly moved with his hand. He wore glasses he didn’t need. The others made him walk in the back since his legs were so long; he didn’t mind because it hid the extensions his mother sewed onto the bottoms of his jeans. The denim never matched, and he claimed he could never find jeans long enough that didn’t need the few extra inches.

“I think I’m going to major in civil engineering,” he said during college orientation.

They sat in the back of the auditorium along the wall that smelled like fresh paint while waiting for crowds of students and their parents to move. Why every new freshman needed to bring both parents and siblings was confounding. None of their parents had been able to come, and to be honest, none of them wanted to. Their children lived separately from them, even in high school, as if the workings of a new age had coalesced at the commencement of their senior year. And they were fine, parent and child, to live this way. Both Amanda and Brian’s fathers were overseas in Kuwait. Matt’s mother was closing out a case in Tampa where her defendant was certain to win. Jeremy’s mother had asked if they wanted her to come, but he’d said no. He chewed his lip and craned his neck to look at Brian behind Amanda.

“You even know what civil engineering is?”

Amanda flicked Jeremy’s ear. “That sounds like a great idea, Brian. Good for you.”

“Yeah, we’ll see.” Brian said. He let out a long sigh, brow creased, and leaned back in his chair. The auditorium chairs were the kind where the seat folded, and every time you moved, it lifted and clicked back down. He hit his elbow on the stow-away desk by the arm of the chair and swore.

“What about you guys?” he asked, rubbing his elbow. They all knew they had to answer now since he had given his.

“Psychology,” Amanda said. “I think.”

Matt, who had looked crestfallen at Brian’s different choice, murmured something about English.

“Yeah, well I think I’m going to go with anthropology,” Jeremy said.

Brian leaned forward, smirking. “You sure you know what that is?”

“Sure, sure. I’m going to be the next Indiana Jones.”

Amanda groaned and kicked the seat in front of her. “Are these people ever going to get out of here?”

Jeremy touched her arm. “Let’s just go awhile. They’re filing out. What’s next, Brian?”

“Tour of the dorm rooms.”

“Guess that means you’re going with the girls, Amanda.”

Amanda shook her head. “I’ll figure it out later. I’ve got the information. I sure as hell don’t care who I get stuck with. It’ll be their funeral anyway.”

They meandered down the carpeted stair aisle, slinging the backpacks they’d kept from high school. Jeremy’s still had a blue Gatorade stain on the bottom from when Matt had tossed a bottle in with the cap loose.

“Hey guys,” Matt said from the back. “I think Indiana Jones was an archaeologist.”

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USF was a bigger campus than they’d thought, but they were all relatively close together, despite their differing majors. They wouldn’t really separate until after two years when they’d finished with all the basic pre-requisites. Towering oak trees dangled Spanish moss over the walkways, framing the way from building to building. Squirrels crawled within inches of them as they ate granola bars at a shaded picnic table. And everywhere, humidity sat like a shawl they couldn’t throw off, stalking them as they walked together the way they used to in the corridors, trying to retain some semblance of tradition and comfort from high school. They thought of marching band, long rehearsal hours, how they all acted like misfits who couldn’t wait to grow up. But now, it just wasn’t right.

None of them could express the tightening in their chest when students who looked like adults passed them, as they saw more briefcases and suits than backpacks and letterman jackets. It wasn’t what they wanted to see, but they each knew there was nothing to be done. They couldn’t go back to high school, so none of them ever mentioned the homesickness of it. To know that each of them felt the same way was enough.

When Jeremy offered that he might join a fraternity the next year, Amanda punched him hard in the arm and shook her finger in his face so hard she scratched his nose. They weren’t the popular ones. They never were, and they didn’t need that. The bravado act of superior posing was for the insecure and the destitute. Jeremy knew who he was. He didn’t need some damned boys’ club to tell him and fill his head with delusions of social grandeur. Matt and Brian hung back the rest of the walk across campus, absorbing the waves of her scolding while Jeremy wisely kept his head down, if unable to hide his smirk.

And, even though she would never admit it, Amanda knew he’d been pulling her leg. She didn’t know if Jeremy realized it, though, if he sensed the dangerous climate of progression in the air, thick as the dropping pressure from the tropical depression soon to come.

Their biggest class was for history in a lecture hall in the ROTC building, and the goal of their trans-campus trek. It was the same auditorium where they’d huddled the day of orientations. The sea of faces glimmered in sweat, all having journeyed through the same blanket of humidity. The four made straight for the back, but some students had already taken their seats. Jeremy quickly spotted an empty grouping, but the next class day he got in early and saved their old seats, legs propped up across three extra seats the way he did at the movie theater for them.

Amanda pulled at her skirt, securing it around her thin thighs before she sat down. The best thing about college, in her opinion, was the lack of primitive dress code. Her large hoop earrings matched her choker necklace. She tried to cross her knees, but couldn’t under the stow-away desk. Instead, she stretched her legs out and crossed her ankles, hitting the back of the chair in front of her. The two boys on the tier below turned with open mouths, ready to tell her off.

“Sorry,” she said. She flashed a smile, and the boys looked at each other.

“Don’t mention it,” one said.

Matt leaned over and whispered in her ear. “Bet he tries to give you his number before class is out.”

“Bet you ask him first.”

Matt flushed and leaned back, crossing his arms. He was shorter than Amanda, and Amanda wasn’t tall. His red hair and freckles gave him an adorable appearance. Jeremy called him Weasley, after the Weasley siblings in Harry Potter who all had red hair and were somewhat nerdy. They’d all read The Sorcerer’s Stone over the summer, and were waiting for The Chamber of Secrets to be released.

Jeremy leaned back. “Hey. Brian.”

“What.” Brian didn’t look up from his textbook.

“Wanna go watch the band rehearse? I hear they suck.”

“Maybe some other time.”

They vaguely listened to the lecture, only realizing halfway through that it was Amanda’s turn to take notes and she hadn’t been doing it. She rolled her eyes, mumbling a muffled “fuck” under her breath, and yanked a spiral notebook out of her backpack so loudly that it slid across the zipper and half the auditorium turned.

“Maybe you morons tell me before class starts next time.”

“Hey, riddle me this,” Brian said. “If purple is the color of royalty in the Roman world, why the hell did we wear white bedsheets on Toga Day? Some bright idea, Jeremy. White is the servant’s color.”

Jeremy flipped him off over his shoulder. “Why haven’t you been taking notes if you’ve been paying attention?”

“He’s not been,” Matt said. “I’m the only one who has.” He shut his mouth when all three of them turned and he realized his mistake.

Jeremy chuckled and slumped in the uncomfortable angles of the seat, stopping just short of resting his arms behind his head. “I love history. This class is going to be great. What’s next on the schedule?”

No one answered, and in this way their routine quickly became established. For the rest of the semester, they would come in together (no one really tried to take their seats again), and someone would be selected to take notes while the other three did anything but take notes. Jeremy slept behind his aviator sunglasses, mouth clamped shut so that only a snore gave him away here and there. Matt worked on writing short stories. Brian doodled. Amanda chewed gum and twirled the end of it around her finger. And 196 other students suffered alongside them, eyes pasted in unison to the large clock above the chalkboard that stretched from door to door, while they waited like the generation already outside the university walls, eagerly standing by the clock with time cards in hand.

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The storm in the Gulf was still two weeks out. Meteorologists didn’t know if it would swing east toward them or switch and head toward New Orleans. Regardless, preparations on campus were in full swing. Ever since Hurricane Andrew a few years back, no one was taking chances. Student government distributed cases of water bottles into the dorms, resident assistants reviewed emergency exit procedures and designated areas of the building that were safest to gather. Instructors assigned extra readings to cover days the university would be closed. The marching band that only rehearsed on Tuesdays and Thursdays added Monday to their schedule to fit in a few more pages of drill.

Amanda and Jeremy watched them from near the top of the stadium on the Monday when they practiced on the football field instead of the band field. They hadn’t planned on it, but when Matt mentioned it and Brian declined, and then Matt also pouted and declined, they were the only two who actually came. Still on the tail end of summer and into Florida’s nonexistent fall, the days stretched long. USF’s water tower blocked the campus’ profile. The sun slowly set behind them so that sidewalk lights beyond the far side of the field turned on one by one. Amanda held a packet of papers, an article she’d had to print out for their history class. The packet ran on a landscape orientation, with two pages on each side to cut down on printing costs. She’d been reading the same side for ten minutes until Jeremy waved a hand just over top of the paper. She wacked him with it.

“Will you quit it out?”

“What, you’re not really reading.” Jeremy plucked the blue-tinted sunglasses off her face. She snatched them back.

“I was sleeping.”

“Over that racket?” Jeremy surveyed the band members far below. “You can always tell when they start having to memorize the opener. It’s a like watching a train wreck.”

The momentum of the band rehearsal slowly deafened, as if even they couldn’t keep up with themselves and the directors were too disheartened to stretch them further. One stood on top of the podium with a hand on his hip, drill sheets in his fist; the other hand shielded his eyes, as though from the sun, but it was shining on the wrong side of him.

From the top of the bleachers, they could see past the horizon, the line of cumulonimbus clouds billowing thicker and thicker as they approached the stadium. Hazy purples and steel blues mixed into a warm gray spotted with darker shading around each individual cloud, trying to merge. Pink whisps of stratus made it look like the clouds were blushing. Three seagulls circled for a moment, white arches soaring, before growing smaller and smaller. The line at the end of the sky seemed to inch simultaneously closer and farther away. They couldn’t tell which, and it made them feel oddly disjointed.

“We could sit here and watch this all evening,” Jeremy said, “or we could go to the dining hall and meet the guys.”

“How can you eat after last night? How can you even live with yourself after last night? You know what? Save it. I don’t even want to know.”

Matt’s mom had given him money for all of them to go out, reward themselves for surviving their first two months of college. She was the only parental figure who didn’t seem to give up; maybe it was the lawyer in her. And to be fair, they had worked hard. They were keeping up the Bright Futures scholarships they’d received from their SAT scores, and between that and the additional University scholarships, they’d avoided any major out-of-pocket costs. And so, Matt surprised them and made reservations at Bern’s Steak House on Howard Avenue. Amanda couldn’t shake the events that cascaded next into a giant clusterfuck.

Brian stood outside the door and wouldn’t go in when they arrived. “When you told me to wear a jacket, you didn’t say it was because we were eating here!”

“Relax,” Matt said, standing on the balls of his feet to dust off the shoulders. Brian’s jacket was slightly too big around the chest. It had been a hand down from his father. The sleeves were right, if a little loose at the shoulders, but his bean pole frame disappeared under the collar, swimming in empty tweed lined with silk that smelled of moth balls.

Brian resisted, shaking his head. “They’re going to find us out. We’ll be like Ferris Bueler.”

“If anyone’s going to be Abe Froman, it’s me, and we all know it. And if we’re like Ferris Bueler,” Jeremy said, straightening his Jimi Hendrix tie in the window before turning to Brian and doing the same for him, “then we’ll pull it off with perfect grace and you can even give ‘em the bird on our way out. Capisce?”

“No. No, I can’t do it. This isn’t a game.”

“Everything’s a game,” Jeremy said.

Amanda stood with her arms crossed, clutching her purse. Her green halter dress had come from the Salvation Army and her stilettos, left over from prom, were a little too tight. She shook her head, large hoop earrings twisting along with her bangs and short ponytail. Then she spit out her gum and clopped past them on the sidewalk, through the glass door without a word.

“See?” Jeremy said, “Now look what you’ve done. Let’s go.”

Matt patted Brian’s arm again, the warmth in his eyes dripping and pathetic.

And just as Jeremy warned them all when they sat down, the money they walked out paying at the end of the night was not worth the small amount of cuisine they ate. Rather, it was a night where they left college behind and did their own thing at a level they hadn’t even accomplished in high school. This wasn’t hanging out in empty parking lots all night, or driving loops around the subdivision traffic circle blaring Korn cassettes from the speakers and staring down the middle schoolers. This was a trial run to test the waters of sophisticated, adult society in a way where they would try and tell themselves it was just a stupid game, an act, and one they failed in ways they would never speak of.

It wasn’t because Amanda spoke in a poor British accent, or because Brian became so nervous he spilled water down his front, or even because Matt tried so horrendously to flirt with the waitress to make Brian jealous; rather, it was because Jeremy actually did end up embodying the Abe Froman façade of confidence. He surprised them all and pulled it off, acting the perfect gentlemen. It was disgusting. They didn’t know who they were sitting with. Matt blushed and stared at his plate. Brian twisted his napkin under the table. Amanda became more immature than ever, determined the balance out his disgraceful twist of character. She hunched over the table, elbows on either side of her plate, chewing her food like she chewed her gum. And she glared at him.

Jeremy failed them that night in a way even he recognized, but found he didn’t—couldn’t—regret. He wouldn’t break character. He even apologized to the waitress for his “friends’ behavior.” Amanda threw an ice cube at his forehead. It was the ultimate betrayal. It was the first sign of the end, the first abandonment of many to come.

Amanda couldn’t think about it. It had all been less than 24 hours ago, but it felt much longer. She was full that next evening as they sat in the stadium not because they’d actually had a bountiful dinner at Bern’s Steak House, but because she’d binged the rest of the night back in her dorm room, lying awake in bed, unable to rid the image of a Jeremy that she’d never before seen and hadn’t even known existed.

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Two days before the storm was scheduled to reach land, the university closed. Classes were cancelled, final preparations were reviewed, and the last few sand bags were padded around buildings in danger of flood damage. There was one next to the library that no one ever used, so no one knew why anyone even bothered. Students enjoyed the days off and drove down to the bowling alley on 56th street that was still open. Some traveled home to their parents if they lived close enough. Others simply wandered around the lifeless campus like lost apocalypse survivors. People who normally never stopped to notice others now waved or said hello, as if toughing it out signified their breach into a higher social level. Those students secretly hoped the storm would strengthen and barrel in a tighter turn before it reached them, as hurricanes in the Gulf are apt to do, and so make their stories even more dangerous. Skies darkened and the wind picked up, warm and salty. […]


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Bryana Fern is a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi, where she is a member of the Center for Writers. Her stories have appeared in Sou’wester, Harpur Palate, Red Mud Review, and Entropy. She has also published work with Washington Independent Review of Books, ChLA International Committee, and Women at Warp. She is the winner of the Kullman Award for First Place Creative Work from the Southern Writers/Southern Writing conference at the University of Mississippi, as well as the Ben Mounger Rawls Award for Excellence in Creative Writing from the Center for Writers at Southern Miss.

Read More: A brief interview with Bryana Fern

“Storm Chasers” won first-prize in the 2018 New Writer Awards (fiction/nonfiction).