My coworkers were gathered around the windows, watching the sky. My boss pulled off his lab coat and moved towards the door.
“I’m outta here,” he said. He looked at me. “It would be wise for you to do the same.”
“Yeah, I don’t want to get caught in that.”
At 3:30, half an hour before I normally leave work, I got into my car, pulled out of the parking lot, and headed for home. It was still light out.
When I turned onto the main road, my rearview mirror was crowded with thick black clouds. I switched off my podcast and tuned into a local station, just in case. It was classic rock, one of the few stations I still get in my car after I broke the antenna years ago.
At 3:45, it started to rain. I switched on my wipers and my lights. A radio ad for a local bank ended, and the announcer put on something from The Who. The sky was layers on layers of heavy dark clouds. The storm was spreading out, dividing into cells, moving fast. I wasn’t outrunning it.
At 4:00, the sun went out. Traffic stopped. I inched forward, holding the steering wheel tight and focusing on brake lights ahead of me. I couldn’t see further. The Emergency Broadcast Signal chirped on my phone, muted by the rain on the roof. I grabbed it and fumbled to see the screen.
CRITICAL WARNING. TORNADO WARNING IN YOUR IMMEDIATE AREA. SEEK SHELTER IMMEDIATELY.
Suddenly, I was in a car wash. A wall of water and wind came at me from the right. I shrieked and stabbed at the radio, screaming at Supertramp to shut up and tell me if I needed to abandon my car and huddle in a ditch. But all the stations were playing music or static. I called home with one hand. It took three tries, because I couldn’t watch the screen and the road, and I couldn’t keep my hand steady enough to find the numbers.
“You need to help me! I can’t see!” My voice and my hands were shaking. “God, I’m so scared, I can’t see! Where is it? There’s a tornado but I don’t know where – what do I do?” My husband told me the warning was for Howard and Montgomery counties. He told me I should pull over, but there was no shoulder, nowhere to go.
“Go check the TV, please, PLEASE! Tell me where it is, where it’s going, tell me what to do!” I fought back tears.
“Colesville,” he told me. “Moving towards Laurel. They’re saying you should get off the road.”
“That’s here!” I panicked. “Oh my God, that’s like right here!”
I should have pulled off, found a house, and asked them to let me in. But it was 4:05pm. People were at work. I couldn’t risk being trapped outside. I kept moving, at 10 miles an hour, looking for shelter. The road broke into two lanes as it passed the commercial strip, but the right lane was flooded, and there was too much traffic coming the other way for me to turn left.
At 4:10, I sat in a left-turn lane outside a strip mall, hitting my steering wheel and screaming at the SUV ahead of me to go go GO. The wind was throwing branches the thickness of my wrist across the road as though they were leaves.
I drove through a river six inches deep to get into the parking lot. I put my car in an empty space, grabbed my purse, and ran. I’m glad I don’t wear heels to work.
I wasn’t outside for more than twenty seconds, but I was soaked through to my bra. I stood, dripping, in the center aisle of the pharmacy with a dozen other people who were shaking as hard as I was. We watched out the store windows as trees bent in the gale.
I called my husband back to tell him I was inside, I was safe, and I loved him.
Then I bought a bag of pretzels and put my chattering teeth to good use while I waited for the all-clear.