The Distant Storm
An occasional boom, muffled and rounded, rolling across the barren Midwestern landscape. In the distance there are roiling clouds, dark clouds fractured by stroboscopic lightning.
Curled on the ground, Sharon is waking up.
“What? How the . . .?” Dazed, she struggles to a sitting position, a cloud of confusion on her face.
A man, not tall or short, not heavy or thin, approaches from the direction of the coming storm. Unsteady and reeling, she climbs to her feet and brushes bits of weed and debris from her clothing.
He wears a dark fedora, a ivory colored long sleeve shirt and dark pants. Though he is close it is difficult to see his face. “Nasty storm brewing.” His voice is deep and melodic.
“Maybe it will pass,” she returns.
“I suppose just about anything is possible. You from around here?”
“I’d rather not say,” she looks at his face, a kind but uneasy face.
“Don’t make anything of it, OK?” she says meeting his gaze.
“As you wish. You got a name?”
“Roger Alastor at your service.” He executes a courtly bow, complete with exaggerated hat gesture.
A peal of thunder like a nuke in the distance. She flinches, he doesn’t. “Did you hear that?” she asks.
“Yeah, that was a big one.”
“No, there was something else. Something in under the thunder.”
“OK.” He does not look convinced.
“You didn’t hear it?”
“No.” Silence. “Look, take some advice, wherever you’re from you might want to head back in that direction. I can’t guarantee the weather around here.”
“See ya.” He tips his hat and turns to leave.
Water in Earth
She pulls her raven hair back and ties it to keep the rising wind from blowing it in her face. The storm has moved much closer or grown astronomically bigger, filling all parts of the sky from horizon to horizon. She is enveloped by the grey hanging rags of cloud emanating from the center.
In the distance there is a two story Victorian house painted in shades of cream and wheat. It floats on a gently swaying sea of grass and wild flowers. Bushes boil up around this house, bearing it up integrating it into the landscape. The storm is definitely closer, huge drops of rain pummel the grasses.
She has never seen this house before but on another level senses something . . . A look of comfortable recognition crosses her face. She climbs the steps to the porch.
There is a palatable silence inside the house accentuated by the din of the storm outside. The house feels cold, that bone numbing cold you get when a house has been abandoned for a long time.
“Perhaps a fire to cut the chill?” She jumps. He wasn’t there a moment before.
He produces matches from his left shirt pocket and lights the kindling in the fireplace. After the fire catches he asks, “Have you noticed that the storm seems to be headed this way? Does that seem a little strange to you?”
Shivering, she holds her hands to the fire. “Hadn’t thought about it.” A frown creases her face. “Why is there so much lightning?”
“Lightning is the closest thing the real world has to demons. Thunder is the laughter of demons. Lightning has a mind of its own.”
“You are not answering my question. Why is there so much? I hate it.”
“Its much worse toward the center.”
A sudden downdraft in the chimney blows ashes and sparks all over the floorboards.
“Aw Geeze,” he says. They stomp out the bigger sparks the smaller ones extinguish themselves.
She stops, listens. “What is that sound?”
“No, there is something else.”
“Something in the thunder?”
“No, something else. Like the ocean but it isn’t coming in waves.”
He frowns, turns and runs up the stair. She hears him moving around the second floor above the bedlam. He comes rushing down the stairs and grabs her arm, pushing her toward the door. She knocks him away.
“Look, There is a river out there and its coming this way.”
“That’s ridiculous, there was no river.”
“Its raining in case you haven’t noticed. We do not have time for this. Get to higher ground.”
Sharon pauses on the porch. A river that was not there before is visibly churning and chewing through the bank that separates it from the house. The sight paralyzes her. He returns and tries to drag her away from the house. There is a loud splintering sound and the whole house shudders as the ground under the back of the house falls into the angry, hungry river.
As they scramble up the hill she shouts, “What about the house?”
“The house doesn’t matter.”
A tidal wave of mud tries to shove them back into the twisting waters of the river. She holds to a gnarled tree. “This is so stupid, why does it have to be like this?” she screams.
“This is the way it’s always been. At least as far as I know.”
He grabs her arm and once again they start up the hill. She sees the gash in his arm. “Doesn’t that hurt?”
He wipes mud from his eyes. “It hurts plenty, but don’t worry, I was born to suffer. That’s how I got to be so good at it.”
She slips and he supports her.
Water in Air
Miserable, wet and dirty, she scales the hillside that originally overlooked the house. Behind them, in the distance, the storm churns with apocalyptic indifference. The wind hurls wet, dead leaves at her like insults. The sleet cuts through her clothing and numbs her face, the accumulation whitening everything. Half the water on her face is her own tears.
Up the hillside a cleft, perhaps a cave, catches her attention. The climb up the slippery slope becomes everything. She falls several times.
Roger runs ahead.
He is standing in the mouth of the cave when she gets there. “We are not properly dressed for this kind of weather.”
“That’s an understatement,” she says.
He laughs. “You could run for home.”
“You keep telling me to run away, what keeps you here?”
“Unlike you , I have no choice.”
“Get into the cave,” she says.
He walks off in the direction of the storm.
“Suit yourself,” she says to his retreating back. “Besides, what makes you think I have a choice?” She is certain he doesn’t hear her.
The cave is narrow at the mouth and runs slightly down hill, but the rock lips of the cave keep the rainwater from rushing in. The floor is covered with debris and dry powder. She considers rolling in the dust to dry herself but decides that she would only succeed in encasing herself in a shell of vile muck. She finds a place back from the mouth and pulls her clothing around her. It is difficult to hear the sound of her crying above the noise of the storm outside the cave.
Hours pass to the frightening and dismal cacophony of the enraged typhoon outside. Perhaps a little bored she takes stock of her surroundings and notices that the walls and ceiling are glowing dimly. The source of the light is millions of hand-sized petroglyphs. They resemble some kind of scientific schema, though entirely unlike anything she has ever seen before. They appear in veins of translucent quartz embedded in salt and pepper granite. They flicker each time the lightning strikes.
Something coming, no stumbling, in from the mouth of the cave. She cowers against the cave wall. Indirectly illuminated by the lightning he stumbles in wounded, frozen and shivering.
“You scared me half to death.”
“Help . . .” He collapses.
He regains consciousness beside a small fire. She has assembled a mat of twigs and bits of wood gathered from the floor of the cave. His wounds are bound. She holds a wet rag up to the fire.
“You were out cold, I borrowed your matches. Hope you don’t mind.” She smiles a naughty smile.
“You are a stubborn woman,” he says. This makes her smile a second time.
“What happened out there?” she asks.
“Certain energies had to be . . . dissipated.” He closes his eyes.
“These energies have a name?” she asks.
“There things in the wind that you do not want to meet.”
She shivers, “Can’t you hear it?” She looks away, thoughtful. “There is something in the storm.”
“I don’t know. Its like a child crying.” She looks baffled.
She uses the heated wet rag to wipe some of the dirt from his face. “You live around here and you haven’t heard it?”
“I’m not sure I would call this living.”
“Then you’re a figment of my imagination?” She holds a fresh rag to the fire.
“For some reason that just doesn’t seem right. I am not part of you.” He shivers in silence. “I’m as confused as you. Maybe I’m a part of . . . this place.”
“Well, if you’re some kind of local color then where are we?”
“I . . . I don’t know.”
“Perhaps you’re not so much part of this place as a part of the storm,” she says. She applies the warm compress to a wound under his left arm, his body convulses. “Sorry.” He grimaces. “What’s in the heart of the storm?” she asks.
“Something hideous. If the outer part of it looks this bad, and believe me it gets worst, then the thing at the core must be horrible.”
“Have you ever been to the heart of the storm?”
“No one has.”
“Why is it coming this way?”
He pulls himself into a sitting position. “The storm knows you’re here.” Silence. “I can tell you this, if you leave it will not follow,” he says.
“What if I stay?”
“No one stays.”
Suddenly thunderous in its silence, the ever present rain ceases. Her ears pop.
Fire in air
She creeps to the mouth of the cave and he crawls up beside her. The core of the storm is closer and the rain seems to have moved past the cave. There is an eerie glow to everything. Everything is furry with some kind of Saint Elmo’s fire.
Suddenly the sky goes Escher. Starting in the distance, in the direction of the heart of the storm, the sky fragments into billions of electric blue snakes of lightning. There is no way to tell where the lightning ends and the darkness begins. All the leafless gnarled trees burst into fire and where the lightning strikes the ground lava erupts.
All of this and more is moving toward them.
The mud and earth, loosened by the deluge, has washed away to reveal some kind of vaulted structure right out of a gothic nightmare. It appears to have been under the Victorian house. He drags himself to a shaky standing position.
“This is weird. Looks like something you’d find on the darkside of the moon.” She says as she stands.
“Weird, surreal, what’s the difference?” she asks, somehow angry.
“Weird means contrary to reality. Surreal means above but not outside reality, next level stuff.” He stumbles off toward the building.
Lightning plays about the structure. A boulder lifts from the ground and leaps for the sky.
“You call that real?”
“You just don’t get it, do you?” He turns on her. “This is not some bullshit fairy tale that will evaporate when you wake up. This is real and bad things can happen here. Go home.”
She says nothing.
He moves off toward the structure. Dazed, she tries to follow but he gets away from her. He enters the grotesque building by way of a vast gaudy door and is gone.
Timid, she enters. The sound of thunder from the outside, perhaps a sizzling sound somewhere inside the house. She finds an ornate Victorian antechamber illuminated by flickering points of light embedded in the walls. Beyond an inner doorway she finds an egg shaped chamber. She ventures further in. The walls of the chamber are some kind of smooth, glittering translucent stone twisting up into a ceiling that is a vast bluish lens.
Suddenly the chamber screams with sizzling energies as lightning cascades down through the lens. She shrieks in cadence.
He is sprawled on the floor trying to crawl toward her, out of the chamber. The gates of Heaven open and a relentless salvo of lightning bolts sizzle him until he is curled in a fetal position on the floor.
“Oh God!” she screams. She runs to him and rolls him face up.
“You know that part where I said I was born to suffer. Cancel that. This hurts,” he says in a whisper.
“This isn’t funny. Why are you being tortured? What did you do?”
“Me? Nothing. I think this is supposed to dissuade you from staying here. Please go home.”
The lightning reenters the chamber, grabbing him the way a snake grabs a mouse. She jumps away. He twitches in the current of the firestorm like some kind of galvanized doll. Random bolts peel off and strike at anything. A part of the far wall is vaporized. In a sudden lull she can see the landscape outside the structure. “I’ve changed my mind! I want to go home,” she screams.
Barely audible, he says, “I’m not sure there is a way back.”
The lightning returns and chews on him again, then stops.
She wants to go to him but fears the fire. “Why is this happening?”
He weeps. He is bleeding from the mouth and around the eyes. “Honestly, I don’t know,” he whispers.
“Why is it hurting you?”
“You are not to be harmed directly. Whatever it is at the center of the storm, it wants you. It wants you alive.” He passes out.
Braving another bolt, she slides close to him and touches his hair, listens to his ragged breathing.
The lightning returns with a vengeance, licking the floor around him. She huddles in the door. In the heart of the firestorm there dance inhuman creatures of energy and light. She can’t see what they are doing, she is going blind and deaf in the maelstrom.
The door is ripped from its hinges and the walls crumble, falling into the sky. Only the doorframe remains.
The Thing in the Storm
Beyond fear and pain, entranced, indifferent to the chaos that surrounds her, she leaves the door and walks toward the center of the storm now only a short distance away. A dream walker in a nightmare, she navigates the landscape of lightning, molten lava and flying rocks. And the thunder, the thunder pounds her.
At length she can see a wall of water that must be the center of the storm. She tries to walk perpendicular to the wind, using it as a kind of compass.
One step closer and abruptly the wind ceases. The thunder ceases. She stands on level, rough ground. Dark chaotic fog hangs in sheets, like undulating curtains whipped by savage winds, an arm’s distance behind her. Now that she is at the center the storm has stopped moving and seems content to spin around her. Lightning plays across the walls but the silence is absolute.
Suddenly in pain she lifts her hands to her head. “I can still hear it, ” she screams. She shakes her head, trying to clear it. “I wish it would stop.” She stamps her feet. “Where are you?” she demands.
He materializes just off to her left.
“Is this the eye of the storm?” she asks.
“I guess . . . I’ve never been here, no one has. What happened to me?”
“It’s here, it’s got to be here. Look around,” she shouts, frantic.
Searching desperately in the scattered flotsam and debris in the eye of the storm she finds a canister. She fights first one end then the other. The lid grudgingly gives way. It is filled with a reeking, murky fluid.
“Help me dump this.” As gently as possible they decant the contents. At first she thinks it is a twisted rag in the bottom. It is a child. The child is a sickly shade of grey and cold to the touch. Somehow it looks like a folded thing, turned in on itself. Some kind of origami thing that got wet and is coming apart at the edges.
She cries out. It hurts to touch the child but it is the only way to stop the sound. Her hands shake and her body convulses but she forces her hands to close around the doughy body. It flinches!
“Its alive. Give me your shirt. Now!”
She wraps the child in the shirt and holds it close to her chest. A sound, centuries old, ceases.
“You brought the storm to you by standing still. How did you know?”
“The only way to catch a hurting child is by standing still.”
Who knows how long they remain so, or when the light that permeates all things fades into existence around them. Who can know when the storm stops, but it does. It can only be said that after a time they are on level, rough ground under a sky untroubled by clouds. “Hey little guy, wake up.”
The azure eyes of the storm child open.