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Eye of the Storm · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000


The following prizes are courtesy of horizon and Trick Question:

  • $25 USD to 1st place
  • $15 USD to 2nd place
  • $15 USD to 3rd place
  • $20 USD to the top placing entrant who has never entered a Writeoff before

A complete detailing of the prizes on offer is here.

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YouTube Celebrity
"Ma," I yelled, banging my knuckles on the bathroom door, "Cleatus is castin' spells again!"

I heard a splash and some cussing, and then Ma's voice hollered back. "Doreen, ain't I told you not to bother me when I'm doin' my hair?"

"Yeah, but—"

"No buts, missy. I got a date tonight, and if either of you kids ruin it, I'll tan your hides."

"Aww, Ma. You ain't seein' Tom Carter again, are you?" Tom Carter was rotten as they come, but he drove a fancy German car and Ma thought that made him a catch. Ma never did have good taste in men.

Ma was quiet for a couple seconds. "That ain't none of your business, Doreen. Now go tell your brother to stop messin' with powers he don't understand."

I huffed and gave the door a kick—not hard enough to hurt anything, just enough to make me a smidge less angry. Ma cussed some more, but I didn't pay her no mind. Honest, I don't know what I expected from her. Ma's not the responsible type. But Cleatus is two years older than me, and he never listens to anything I tell him, leastways when he's showing off for his idiot friends. He might've listened to Ma, maybe.

It was starting to get cold out, so I threw on my orange jacket before I left the trailer. Cleatus was sitting on a lawn chair three homes down, paging through somthing that must've been Dad's old book of spells. He raised one hand and snapped his fingers, and there was a bright flash and a crack like somebody'd just lit off an M-80. The three other boys sitting with him stared at Cleatus like he was God's own gift to Tennessee.

The wind was picking up, so I held my jacket closed as I marched over to Cleatus and his friends—Tyrell, Sam, and Dustin by the look of 'em. I should've known Dustin would be there. By the time I'd gone halfway, I could already hear 'em jabbering at each other. Cleatus was asking if Dustin brought his video camera. Dustin said he had, and leaned down to fish it out of his backpack.

That's when Sam saw me.

Sam's face went dark, and he said something to Cleatus that you can bet I heard, but I'm too ladylike to repeat it. Tyrell looked up and saw me, too, and his face froze over faster than the pond behind the trailer park does when winter comes. I knew what that look meant.

You see, Tyrell and I have an understanding. He's the smartest boy I know, but he's also black, and he don't live in a place where people much like black folks. He could be something special if he put his mind to it, and maybe he will. We've talked about it sometimes, when nobody's watching. But until he graduates, all he wants is to keep his head down and stay out of trouble—and that means being friendly with folks he maybe wouldn't care for much, if circumstances were different; and it means keeping his mouth shut when he knows it's like to get him in trouble if he don't. This was one of those times. Tyrell's expression was as good as telling me, "Doreen, I know you're right, and I ain't gonna fight you on it. But I'm not gonna speak up for you either."

Cleatus shut the book and stood as I marched up to his little group. He opened his mouth like he wanted to say something, but I didn't let him have the chance. "Cleatus Alexander McKenzie, what in Jesus' name do you think you're doin', casting spells from that book like you're some damnfool entertainer?" I paused for just long enough to let him speak.

"Don't you take that tone with me, Doreen. I got as much right to—"

"I'll take whatever tone I please, you idjit. And no, you ain't got no right. Dad was a fully accredited sorcerer, with certificates an' everything. You're just a coon with a new catch of fish, you are. Until you get some proper training, you ought to stop messin' with powers you don't understand." I said that last bit just the same way Ma would have said it, hoping it might lend me a bit of her authority—not that she had but a thimblefull.

"I'll do whatever I damn well please, Doreen, and can't you or nobody stop me. Dustin an' I, we got this idea to—"

I rode right over him. "Oh, so you got an idea now. Is it a good one, like when you stole the preacher's cat? Or is it a really good one, like when you melted the tires on the sheriff's car?" This was how you argued with someone. You didn't let them finish what they were saying, and then you made sure to finish it yourself, so you could cast it any way you wanted. I learned that from my Ma. Dad may have known spellcasting, but Ma knew arguing better than anybody.

"This is the best idea I ever had, Doreen." Cleatus smiled at me, happy as a pig in mud. "I'm gonna be a YouTube celebrity."

I think my jaw must've dropped three inches. That was, without a doubt, the dumbest thing I'd ever heard my brother say—and I've heard my brother say more dumb things than a hawk has feathers.

"For the love o' Christ, Cleatus, why would you even wanna do that?" Everybody knows YouTube celebrities are just stupid folks who ain't ashamed to show off how stupid they are where the whole world can see.

"'Cause they pay you money. The more your videos get watched, the more money you make." Cleatus tapped a finger against his temple. "See, I thought this one through, Doreen. All I gotta do is make videos that people wanna watch, and the YouTube guys'll give me money. 'Ad revenue,' Dustin says they call it."

"And how're you gonna get people to watch your videos, Cleatus? Viewers or whatever you call 'em, they don't just grow on trees you know. You need somethin' that makes your videos different from all the others."

Cleatus didn't say a word. He just grinned and snapped his fingers again, except this time the flash came right in my eyes and the not-really-an-M-80 sounded so close it made my ears hurt.

I punched him in the shoulder, partly for the magic and partly for the foolishness, but all because he deserved it. "Plenty of folks can do magic, you nincompoop. That don't make you special. Anyway, you'd need to cast some pretty big spells if you wanted folks to believe you weren't just doin' stage magic."

The wind rustled through the trees along the street, tossing Cleatus's hair and pinning my dress against my legs. Cleatus stroked a hand over the stubble on his chin and made thinking noises. "Yeah, I've been worried about that, too. Anybody can do pops and flashes, and old read-your-mind tricks. If I wanna get famous, I gotta figure out somethin' nobody else can do."

I rolled my eyes. "Cleatus, you been studying that book for two years now and you can hardly even start a fire. I'm tellin' you, this won't work. And even if it did work, you really wanna get known as the dumb hick who casts spells for other folks' entertainment?"

Sam shoved between us and gave me a glare. "Stop pickin' on him, Doreen. At least your brother wants to make something of himself, whether or not you like it. That's better than you or your whore mom."

That ought to have made me mad, but Sam's always been a dickwad and Ma's darn near famous for her poor choices with men ever since Dad left. Sam's opinion of me didn't matter one whit either. I had plans for after I graduated, and they weren't nobody's business but my own. "You're right, Sam, he does want to make something of himself. He wants to make a fool of himself, is what he wants. And you're gonna be right there with him, same as always, aren't you?"

"Will you two shut it?" Cleatus asked, raking a hand through his hair. "Sam, stop insultin' my sister. Doreen, stop cussin' out my friend. Fact is, Doreen's right. If we wanna get famous, we need to find something big to do."

I crossed my arms over the front of my jacket and huffed. "Cleatus, that ain't what I was sayin' and you know it."

"You're still right, though, Sis. You've got a good brain on you. Everybody knows it. That's why Dad always liked you." Christ, Cleatus was talking like a leader again, weighing and judging and seeing the value in people. That'd be wonderful, if he wasn't always using those talents to lead people into one idiot scheme or another. "Tell you the truth, I was gonna try something with lightning, but Dad's spells didn't do nothing. Lightning's awful impressive. Lightning videos get all sorts of views even when there's no magic involved."

"You were gonna..." I swear, my brother is a bottomless well of stupid. "Cleatus, lightning is dangerous! You could've got somebody killed with spells like that!"

Cleatus shrugged his shoulders. "Don't see as it matters. I must've tried that spell two dozen times in the last hour, and it ain't done nothing."

Tyrell was standing next to Cleatus, and I saw his lips tighten when my brother spoke. "You know, Cam—" Tyrell called my brother Cam, on account of his whole name being Cleatus Alexander McKenzie, and Cleatus not being the most dignified name to some folks. "—I'm not so sure the spell was a bust anymore." Tyrell had his eyes fixed on the sky behind me.

I turned to look, and another gust of wind plastered my hair against my face. The sky south of the trailer park had turned a venomous shade of black, and as I watched, I could see the clouds starting to churn and roil. As I remember, I reacted to this by saying something very unladylike.

"Wow," Cleatus said. "Maybe you're right, Tyrell. Dustin, you got that camera ready? I think it's about time for us to start makin' that video we talked about."

Dustin, quiet as always, stepped up beside me with some fancy silver camcorder. Dustin lived with his mom, who'd split with his dad, who was a doctor in Memphis. Twice a year, In exchange for not having a father, Dustin'd get a couple fancy gift-wrapped presents in the mail. They'd always include some sort of new electronic gadget. Cleatus and I didn't have a father no more, either, but we still wouldn't've traded the one we'd had for what Dustin got.

Dustin opened up his camcorder, punched the red "Record" button, and that's when the first lighting bolt struck, down at the end of the lane. Whatever flashbang spell Cleatus had come up with, it weren't nothing compared to a spear of raw lighting. The bolt was a blinding streak across my vision, and the thunder that followed on its heels made a jackhammer sound like a whisper.

I screamed, and it took all my willpower to stay where I was instead of hiding behind Tyrell like I wanted to. Even Dustin shied back, and he ain't usually got the sense God gave geese. Cleatus, who had considerably less sense than geese, just whooped and hollered and carried on like he'd won a prize at the state fair.

Then the second bolt struck, landing on a trailer that looked like old Mrs. Anderson's, and Cleatus finally realized that maybe he'd made a mistake.

"You're a Goddamned fuck-up, Cleatus!" I had to shout to hear myself over the thunder. I was done being ladylike. "We gotta get inside before this gets any worse!" I kicked my brother in the shins, grabbed Tyrell's hand, and started tugging him toward the trailer we was in front of—the one where Sam and his parents lived. Sam was faster than me, though. He raced right up to the door, put his hand on it, and a blaze of lightning flew down from the heavens and took him square in the chest. The thunder felt like somebody'd stabbed my ear with a kitchen knife.

I don't know how long we stood there staring. It probably weren't no more than three seconds, but the sight of Sam collapsing to the ground burned itself into my brain the same way the lighning was burning itself into my eyes. I kept seeing it, over and over again.

Then I felt two big hands on my shoulders, shaking me. I stared up into the most beautiful pair of hazel eyes I ever did see, and a low voice like honey on rocks said, "Doreen, we have to move." I nodded, and Tyrell pulled me toward a big Chevrolet pickup sitting in the driveway of the next home over. Cleatus was already there, pulling on the door handle and trying to wrench it open. I didn't see Dustin anywhere, and my brain didn't have much room for thinking about him. I hoped he was safe. I was glad to be rid of his video camera, though, and this fool notion of putting Cleatus's magic on the internet.

As we ran to join my brother, fighting against the wind that was still picking up, Tyrell yelled, "Come on, Cam! There's gotta be some sort of spell that can get a car door open. What the hell good is all this magic, if you can't even do that?"

Cleatus must've heard, because he stopped jerking at the door handle, took a deep breath, and stuck his fingertip to the keyhole. There was a little flash, electric blue like a spark arcing across the gap between two metal rods in science class, and the door opened. Tyrell and I ran around to the passenger side and climbed in as fast as we could. Tyrell made sure I went in first, so I took the rear seat and let him have the front.

Once the doors were closed, our panic eased a little. The thunder was loud, but not quite as loud as it had been. The lightning was still falling, a new flash coming every few seconds, but it felt safer to be inside something.

A bolt hit the hood of the truck, and everything went white around us. I screamed, sure I was going to die and meet my maker. But after the light faded and the ringing in my ears stopped, it seemed like I was still in one piece. We all were.

"Guess it worked," Tyrell said, sounding a hell of a lot calmer than I felt.

Cleatus gave him a skittish look. "What do you mean, Ty?"

"I always heard cars were a safe place to be in a storm," Tyrell said. "Wasn't sure I believed it. Metal's supposed to conduct electricity and all, but my dad says they don't put that much metal in cars nowadays. Guess this is better than being outside, anyway."

We were all quiet for a minute. The storm didn't let up, but none of us had the heart to say anything. We were all busy with our own thoughts. You might think mine were about me being angry at my brother, but I was too drained to feel anything except worry by then. Worry for Ma, for Dustin, and even for Sam, much as that boy got on my nerves. They said you could survive getting hit by lightning.

Cleatus was the first one to speak. "There's gotta be something I can do about this. I started it, right? So I oughtta be able to put a stop to it, too."

"Jesus Christ, Cleatus, ain't you caused enough damage for one day?" I wanted to sound angry when I said it, but I think the words just came out petulant.

"No, Doreen, I mean it. This is my fault, and people are getting hurt. Sam might even be dead." Cleatus's voice didn't have much emotion, either. He must've been feeling the same as I did. "You're right, I'm not good at this spellcasting stuff the way Dad was, but I've been tryin' to learn for more'n two years now. I gotta be able to help."

Tyrell didn't say anything, he just looked back at me.

Sighing, I nodded. "Fine. But you be careful, Cam. You ain't just messin' around this time. You're tryin' to save people." I called my brother Cam, too—any time he wasn't being a dingbat.

The hint of a smile crept onto Cleatus's face. "Whatever you say, Sis. I need to see this storm to do anything to it, though. That's Magic one-oh-one. Can't change somethin' unless you can see it. Tyrell, you think you can drive this thing?"

"If you've got the keys I can. But you don't, Cam."

That smile widened. "We don't need keys, Ty. We got magic." Cleatus touched his finger to the ignition, and I saw the same blue spark as when he unlocked the door. Then the engine roared to life.

Tyrell gave Cleatus a full-armed slap across the face.

"Hey!" Cleatus rubbed his jaw, and I could already see his cheek turning red. "You ain't never slapped me before, Ty! What the hell was that for?"

"For not listening to your sister. Cam, we just got hit by lightning. You don't think maybe you could've hurt yourself, touching metal like that?" Tyrell heaved a sigh. "Doreen told you to be careful, Cam. She's right. You're not gonna help anybody if you get yourself killed."

"Fine," Cleatus muttered. "Fine. Now would you mind tradin' places with me, so we can get this truck on the road?"

Tyrell nodded, and the pair of them engaged in some fancy acrobatics, trying to get past one another in the cramped space at the front of the cabin. When they settled back down, Tyrell put the truck in reverse and Cleatus opened up Dad's old spellbook, setting it on his lap. The thunder and lightning were still coming all around us, but I must've gotten better at ignoring them 'cause they didn't seem so bad to me anymore.

As Tyrell pulled the Chevy onto the lane between homes, Cleatus started reading out loud from the book. Sounded like he'd found the page where his lightning spell first came from. "Says here, you disperse a storm the same way you gather it. Ty, take us out toward the pond. I'm gonna see if I can figure out the details."

There wasn't much for me to do except get carried along for the ride, so I just sat in the back and listened to Cleatus mumble on about mystical energies and words of power. I never studied any magic—it wasn't good for nothing except getting folks into trouble, like Cleatus now, and like Dad before him—so the words all sounded like gibberish to me. But interesting gibberish, I had to admit. Science classes were always my favorite, and back before he left, Dad always used to tell me that science and magic were just two sides of the same coin.

"I think I got it!" Cleatus yelled. "Here, hold up a sec, Ty. Let me see if this'll do it."

Tyrell pulled the truck to the side of the road, about halfway to the pond. Cleatus leaned forward, looking out the dashboard at the roiling thunderclouds and the lightning arcing through them. Then he raised his hands and said some words in a loud, powerful voice. For a second, his hand seemed to glow, and the sky outside the truck lit up—but then the glow faded and left us back in the dark. Cleatus said a curse under his breath and tried one more time, but it was the same thing all over again. I leaned forward to watch, and there was the same glow, the same subtle brightening in the sky, and then nothing.

I got a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach. "Hey Cam, can you do that one more time?"

"It's not working, Doreen. I gotta try something else."

"Please, Cam. I think I saw somethin', and I wanna be sure."

"Fine, but it ain't gonna do nothing." Cam lifted his hand again, and said the same words as before. There was a glow, the sky lightened, and my breath caught in my throat.

"Funnel cloud," I whispered.

Tyrell and Cleatus were both silent, staring up at the sky through the windshield, even though we couldn't make out the cloud formation anymore. Then Cleatus reached overhead and hit the switch to turn on the Chevy's cabin lights, and Tyrell pulled back onto the road, driving toward where we'd seen the funnel cloud. Which was a damn fool thing to do, but none of us were arguing with him. Cleatus was right—he started this, and maybe he could find a way to stop it, and if it took us driving into the spout of a tornado to do it, well, that's what we were gonna do.

Cleatus was flipping through the spellbook like a man possessed, running his fingers back and forth across the pages as the Chevy bounced down the old dirt road toward the pond. After a minute, he stopped flipping and began reading more carefully. Then, with the car still going at a good clip, he raised his hand and said a different string of words from the ones he used before.

His hand glowed a little brighter this time, and now there was a yellow flash that filled the cabin and a smell that reminded me of buttered popcorn. But the sky didn't seem to change none.

"Damn it, that should've done something." Cleatus kept reading down the page until he hit another spell that caught his attenion. "Okay, how about if I..." This time, he waved his hand in a tight loop while chanting something that almost sounded recognizable to me. And nothing happened. Less than nothing. The Chevy's engine sputtered a bit, like it might have gotten some air in the fuel line.

"I don't know what to do, Doreen! I've never tried using weather spells before today, and I didn't even think that lightning spell would work. We gotta stop this storm before anybody else gets hurt, but I don't know how." Cleatus's voice was tight. "I wish Dad were here."

"Lemme see that," I said, leaning forward and snatching the old spellbook out of Cleatus's lap.

There was something about the words Cleatus was saying that tickled the back of my head. He'd tried three spells and the words were all different, but some of 'em sounded real similar to each other. "Show me what spells you've been trying," I said.

Cleatus pointed to two on the page that was open, and he showed me another a couple pages back. I read them quick and handed the book back to him. "That first one worked the best, Cam, but you gotta change some of the words. 'Tempeschorae' should be 'tempestae', and drop the whole line about 'eveo occitap'."

Cleatus gave me a look of pure horror. "Doreen, that ain't how magic works. Who the hell knows what'd happen if I tried something like that? I thought you told me to be careful!"

"Just trust me, okay? Those words make more sense to me."

"And what do you know about magic? I thought you hated the stuff, Doreen. All that talk about messing with powers nobody understands, and you want me to mess with them even more? What kind of sense does that make?"

"Fine! Don't take my advice." I unbuckled myself and reached behind me, pulling open the big panel on the rear window. The sound of wind filled the truck.

Cleatus turned around and stared at me like somebody'd punched him too hard. I got up off the seat and started to squirm through the back window, into the bed of the pickup. He reached for me and grabbed my leg to hold me back, but I kicked out and hit something with my toes. I heard him cuss, and then I was free. And in the back of the truck. With the whole storm raging around me, and that awful funnel stretching down from the sky.

I stood up, lifted my hands, and everything went dark.

They say I was unconscious for two whole days after the storm passed. I don't remember.

What I do remember is, when I woke up, I was in a hospital. White walls, white doors, white sheets on strange-looking white beds, everything hollow and quiet and full of that awful hospital smell, halfway between hand soap and dead things.

I must've made some kind of ruckus, because as soon as I realized where I was, Cleatus popped his head through the door and grinned at me. I only saw him for a second, and then he disappeared and I heard him hollering, "She's awake, y'all! Doreen's awake!"

A moment later, Cleatus, Tyrell, and Dustin all piled into the room. Dustin was holding a laptop that he must've got from his dad.

Tyrell took a seat next to my bed. He reached up, grabbed my hand, and held it. I felt my heart skip a beat when he did. I looked over at him, but for the life of me I couldn't tell what his expression was saying.

I groaned, trying to sit up. "Where's... What happened to Sam?" I didn't like the little prick, but that don't mean I wanted him dead.

"He's pretty banged up," Tyrell said. "Your mom, too. A lot of folks are. Sam's in the hospital here, still getting treated for burns, and there're five or six others in the same state. But nobody died."

I let out a breath I didn't realize I'd been holding. I turned my head to look at Cleatus. "And you? The sherrif didn't—"

Cleatus shook his head. "Nah. You know how hard it is for lawyers to make anything stick, when magic's involved. That's why Dad had to leave. But anyway, that's not why we're here Doreen."

I groaned again, half from the pain I felt everywhere, and half from the heartache of having an insensitive, idiot brother. "You couldn't just come to see me 'cause you cared?"

"Well sure I could—but you gotta see this, Sis." Cleatus wheeled a little white table around to the other side of the bed and patted the top enthusiastically. Dustin put down his laptop and opened it, running his finger across the touchpad to wake the computer. When the screen fired up, it showed a still-frame from a video. There was a red Chevy Silverado speeding along an old country road, with a figure standing in the truck bed. The figure wore a bright orange jacket and a long skirt, and her whole body seemed to glow. Her hands pointed to the sky—right at a tall, thin funnel cloud. And the funnel cloud seemed to be bending away from her, back up into the sky itself.

"Dustin's dad's camera has a real good zoom feature," Cleatus was saying. "When the lightning hit Sam, Dustin went running the other way before we could stop him. He ended up out by the pond. He's lucky none of the lightning ever came his way, but he's also lucky 'cause he had a prime seat to film what you did. He got all of it, Doreen. The whole thing. We put it up last night, and now it's all over the news!" Cleatus gave Dustin a big thump on the back.

Tyrell squeezed my hand. I think my eyes must've been getting misty, because I suddenly had a hard time seeing Dustin's computer screen. I squinted, looking at the line below the video. I had to know.

Thirty-six million views. Oh, Jesus.

"You did it, Doreen." Cleatus stood there with his hands on his hips, proud as any peacock. "You're a bona-fide YouTube celebrity."
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