Wallace was a good meteorologist, and he was rarely wrong about the weather.
But Kendrick was never wrong. If Wallace said it would rain tomorrow, it might. If Kendrick said it would rain tomorrow, it would. And he’d reveal the exact time that it would start and how long it would last and how many inches would fall. Kendrick did not deal in percentages. He told the viewer exactly what the weather would be without qualifications or caveats. He was the weatherman to watch. Wallace was not.
When he was growing up in the house on Bowlingforth Drive that his parents had moved from just a few weeks before he’d come back to town, Wallace used to put on his church suit, go down into the basement, and stand in front of a big map of the United States that his dad had saved for him when the town demolished the old elementary school. Wallace made a fake camera out of cardboard and read off of an imaginary teleprompter to an audience of imaginary viewers, playing out his fantasy of telling the residents of Multioak to bundle up because it was going to be a brisk one out there or suggesting that they pack plenty of sunscreen because it was going to be a scorcher out there. But, of course, no one was really watching.
Now that he was actually on Channel 2, standing in front of a real camera, his image broadcast to anyone with a TV and a desire to watch, Wallace felt like he was ten years old again, right back in his parents’ basement, delivering the weather report to nobody at all. He knew that even people who preferred Channel 2’s news team switched over to Channel 3 for Kendrick’s weather report. People had come right out and told him that. People that he’d never suspected could be so rude.
Here he was, on the doorstep of his dream with no way to get in, his only deficiency the fact that he did not have a superhuman power that, to his knowledge, only one person in the world possessed.
And now there had even been talk around the station of cutting the weather report altogether. Wallace went to the station manager and appealed to tradition. He also pointed out that if Kendrick ever moved on to a bigger station or died, it would be good to already have a weather team in place to fill the void. The station manager agreed, or pretended to, and Wallace’s job was safe for the moment, but he had the feeling that the subject would be revisited soon, especially if finances at Channel 2 remained as tight as they had been recently.
One fall evening after he got off work, Wallace went to keep his girlfriend Alice company while she babysat a pair of infant twins in a mansion by the fork in the Runoff River. While the twins slept in their cribs upstairs, Wallace and Alice sat on the porch swing and watched the river churn white. A baby monitor hissed quietly on a small table next to the swing, sounding like an ancient radio broadcast of the same river they were watching.
“He doesn’t even know meteorology,” said Wallace. “He’s an impostor. He’s like those animals that predict the results of soccer games.”
“People love those animals,” said Alice. “And besides that, most people don’t care how it’s done, just so long as it’s correct.”
“Where’s the charm in always always being right?” asked Wallace. “Where’s the human element?”
“People don’t want charm,” said Alice, sticking her legs straight out as they rocked back and forth on the swing, tapping the heels of her tennis shoes together. “They want to know for sure if they can have their graduation parties outdoors or if they should take their umbrellas to work with them.”
“But what about those times when you think it’s going to be cold and dreary, and then you step out of your house, and there’s the sun. That’s a pleasant surprise that can make your whole day.”
Alice sighed. “But what about the farmers who wait and wait for rain, and then the weatherman tells them it’s coming and they stand in their dry fields and stare at the sky and it never comes?”
“You’re so dramatic,” said Wallace.
Wallace saw Kendrick around town every once in a while, but Kendrick never seemed to recognize him. Of course, as little reason as anyone had to watch Wallace predict the weather, Kendrick had the least, so it made sense that he wouldn’t know who Wallace was. Wallace would see Kendrick pumping gas into his car at a gas station or having a basket of fish sticks at the Square Bowl Diner and fume as he watched citizens approach Kendrick with huge grins on their faces, greeting him by name and asking him specific questions about tomorrow’s or next week’s weather, all of which Kendrick would graciously answer.
Of course, no one asked Wallace weather questions, and even if they had, his answers would have been unsatisfactorily indefinite. At parties, when people asked him what he did for a living, Wallace gave them the impression that he worked in a behind the scenes capacity for the Channel 2 news team.
“That must be interesting,” said a long, smiley woman at one party. “I watch Kendrick Cratcher do the weather on Channel 3 and then switch over to watch Frank Larkin do the high school sports roundup on Channel 2.”
“Yeah, he’s good,” said Wallace.
“I know! Do you know he’s never been wrong about the weather? Not even once!”
“I meant Frank Larkin’s good,” Wallace said with as little fury as possible. “He does the best high school sports coverage in town! Got it?”
“I know,” the woman said, edging away from Wallace. “That’s why I switch over.”
For Wallace, parties were excruciating.
One bright, cold morning, Wallace went out to his parents’ new house in Dalcette to have breakfast with them. While he was there, his mom gave him a cardboard box full of his stuff she’d found during the move. On his way back to Multioak, driving past bare fields and forests, Wallace saw a man walking along the side of the road with a slight limp. He was wearing a bike helmet and wheeling a bicycle with a flat front tire. As Wallace drove past, he saw that the man was Kendrick Cratcher and that his tight cycling pants were ripped and his knees were bloodied. Despite the temptation to just continue on and let Kendrick learn that being able to perfectly predict the weather didn’t save one from all of life’s ills, Wallace turned around, drove back to Kendrick, and offered him a ride into town.
Kendrick hefted his damaged bike into the bed of Wallace’s truck and climbed into the cab, the cardboard box full of Wallace’s stuff between the two men on the seat. “Thanks a lot,” said Kendrick. “I hit a pothole and crashed. Just popped a tire and kind of tipped over, but the chain broke, and on top of all that I landed on my phone and now it won’t even turn on. What a mess.”
“Sounds like it,” said Wallace. “Are you hurt? Those knees look painful.”
“Nah, just scraped up.” Kendrick took off his helmet and set it on his lap. “No matter how many times I crash I don’t seem to learn my lesson.” He touched one of his scraped knees with his fingertips.
“Here,” said Wallace, reaching over to pop open the glove compartment and pull out a handful of napkins left over from fast food drive through meals. Wallace didn’t know why he was being so nice. As much as he resented Kendrick from a distance, it was hard to hate him in person like this.
Kendrick took two napkins and stuck one to each knee where they hung soaking up the slow seep of blood.
Out of the corner of his eye, Wallace saw Kendrick eyeing the box.
“I was just at my parents’ place,” said Wallace. “They moved recently and this is some of my old stuff they found.”
“Huh,” said Kendrick, reaching into the box and pulling out a pair of white gloves Wallace’s mother had crocheted for him.
“My mom made those,” said Wallace.
“Oops,” said Kendrick. “I got blood on them.”
“I don’t care,” said Wallace. “Guys don’t really wear white gloves. My mom doesn’t get that.”
“I wear white gloves,” said Kendrick.
“Well, you’re welcome to have them.”
“No thanks,” said Kendrick. “These have blood on them.”
The men laughed. The bike rattled in the bed of the truck as it bumped over the rugged county roads.
“What’s this?” asked Kendrick. He wiped his fingers with another napkin and pulled Wallace’s fifth grade science fair trophy out of the box. Wallace hadn’t even known it was there. It was cheaply made with a shiny plastic microscope mounted on a wooden base.
“Wow,” said Kendrick, reading the inscription. “First place. What was your project?”
“Types of clouds,” said Wallace.
“What do you mean?” asked Kendrick. “Like, white puffy ones and dark ones?”
“No,” said Wallace. “Cumulus, stratus, cirrus. You’re the Channel 3 weatherman, right? Kendrick Cratcher? Shouldn’t you know this?” He felt a little outrage beginning to simmer in his gut.
Kendrick gave Wallace a strange look and put the trophy back in the box. “Yeah, I’m the weatherman. But I don’t know anything about the science. I just predict it.”
“But aren’t you curious? Don’t you want to know more about how it works?”
“Nah,” said Kendrick, looking out the window at the frost encrusted fields. “I hate my job. I wake up every day thinking I’ll quit and I never do.”
Wallace’s heart began to beat faster. This was important information. “You hate it? But why? Everyone loves you and you don’t even have to try!”
“Where’s the satisfaction in that?” asked Kendrick, leaning his head back and looking up at the upholstery drooping down from the ceiling of the truck’s cab. “I didn’t become a weatherman because it interested me. I couldn’t care less about weather. But I was born with this gift, right? So no matter where I go, I always fall back into being the weatherman. It’s too easy and I’m too weak to break free.” He grunted in disgust and turned to look at Wallace. “So what do you do?”
Wallace was silent for a moment and then said, “Well, uh, I’m a meteorologist.”
Kendrick burst out laughing. “You’re a weatherman too? Ah, I can’t believe it!”
“Believe it,” said Wallace. “I’m actually your competition. Not that there’s any competition, really. Nobody sees me, but I work for Channel 2.”
“No kidding,” said Kendrick. “So you probably do it all scientifically, right? Radar and gauges and cold fronts and all that?”
“That’s right,” said Wallace. “I love the science. I love meteorology.”
“I admire that,” said Kendrick. “All that technical stuff is just gibberish to me.”
“It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do,” said Wallace. “I grew up here in Multioak and ever since I could remember I wanted to be the town’s meteorologist. The meteorologist.”
Kendrick was silent as the truck passed through the outskirts of town. All of his fingertips were smudged with red from poking at his scrapes. “Even if I quit,” he finally said. “I’d have to move away. People would still ask me for the weather everywhere I went. It wouldn’t end. I’d just be doing the same thing but for free.”
“So here’s what you do,” said Wallace with a sly smile. “You get it wrong a few times. Then, when people are good and upset, you announce that you’ve lost your talent. It’s gone. You don’t know where it went or why it’s gone, but it’s gone, so you’re resigning.”
A slow grin bloomed on Kendrick’s face. “And then I can do whatever I want.”
“Exactly,” said Wallace. “What do you want to do?”
“I don’t even know,” said Kendrick. “But I guess I’ll have time to figure it out.”
“I haven’t even asked where you live,” Wallace said with a laugh. “I’ve just been driving without thinking.”
“We’re right by the Square Bowl,” said Kendrick. “You wanna grab some coffee?”
While the two men sat at the counter waiting for their coffee, a slight, squinty young woman in a baseball cap came up to them and said, “Mr. Cratcher? My friends and I are making a movie for a school project and I was wondering if Saturday will be a good day to film outside?”
“A perfect day for filming,” said Kendrick. “Sunny, dry, and unseasonably warm.”
“Thanks, Mr. Cratcher!” The girl went back to her booth.
“I hope their equipment is water-resistant,” said Kendrick under his breath.
The weathermen laughed uproariously.
The plan went off without a hitch. Kendrick made several major incorrect predictions on the air and when Multioak’s agitated citizens complained, he cheerfully announced that his gift had disappeared and that he was stepping aside to pursue other interests. At first people were frustrated to lose their absolute certainty in what tomorrow’s weather would be, but since Channel 3 was forced to hire a weatherman who relied on meteorology just like Wallace did, many viewers finally switched over to Channel 2 since Wallace was the local boy and, on top of that, was more accurate than Channel 3’s new guy. He couldn’t predict weather like Kendrick had, but he was a good meteorologist, no question.
Wallace’s job was no longer in jeopardy. He became a valued member of the Channel 2 news team. He got a raise. People recognized him in public and asked him about the weather, to which he responded with his best guesses based on data compiled from his meteorological research. He was content.
One night while he was sitting at home alone flipping through his old high school yearbooks, his phone rang.
It was Kendrick. He had floundered a little after giving up his weatherman job, but he’d recently started taking some computer animation classes at Laterman Community College in Multioak and he seemed to be finding his niche. The two men were on friendly terms, exchanging pleasantries when they ran into each other in public, but they weren’t in regular contact so a call from Kendrick was unexpected.
“What can I do for you?” asked Wallace.
“I saw your weather report tonight,” said Kendrick. “You didn’t mention the storm.”
“There’s a huge ice storm coming, Wallace. You need to let people know. You need to warn them.”
Wallace stood and walked to his kitchen, looking out the window over the sink at his dark back yard. “There are no scientific indications that an ice storm is coming, Kendrick.”
“I don’t care,” said Kendrick, his voice rising. “An ice storm is coming. It’s going to be awful, Wallace. It’ll almost certainly knock out the power. No one will be able to drive on the roads. People need to be prepared!”
“You’re not the weatherman anymore, Kendrick.”
“But I still know, Wallace! That hasn’t changed!”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Wallace, returning to his seat in the living room, propping his bare feet up on his ottoman. “This town gets its weather predictions from the science of meteorology now, not supernatural feelings.”
Kendrick tried to protest, but Wallace hung up on him and switched his phone to silent mode.
Two hours later, as Wallace crawled into bed, he heard the first light tapping of sleet on his window. He hadn’t predicted any precipitation at all, but that was the nature of meteorology. It was not an exact science.