One Good Storm
Etta stood on her porch with her hands in her pockets. Behind the house, clouds rumbled with their burden of rain. No amount of wind could blow the storm past them tonight. It simmered above her, waiting to boil and break.
She moved her planters to the porch and pulled in the flag, folding it and setting it inside her front door. The neighborhood was quiet—all of her neighbors were tucked into their homes, each like a child in their own bed before a night of bad dreams. Etta never underestimated the storms anymore. They were fiercer now than when she was a girl, and she felt less equipped to deal with them. As a child, she had loved the thunder and lightning shocking the skies outside her room on the farm, but here in the tranquil suburbs, each storm felt like entropy, wreaking havoc on their fragile neighborhood.
Across from her house, the family of four had all of the children’s toys inside for once, swept into the garage in a hurry. At the end of the street, the smallest, newest trees of the neighborhood clung tethered to the ground, more confident than they should have been about the storm brewing overhead.
Etta watched the clouds, pregnant with their rain, waiting for the moment when the storm would stop knocking at the door and finally come in. She took one last look around her yard. Everything that could blow away was tied down, even the rotting planter she intended to replace that summer. Nothing to break windows, nothing to rattle at the walls while she waited out the storm through the night.
She closed the front door behind her and let the deadbolt thud in the lock. In her living room, her framed photos beamed out at her in the last grey light of the day, and she cast a smile over them. A dozen pictures from four decades, with the two featured faces getting less youthful and more joyous as they went. She grinned at the closest one—two faces in their twenties, the only picture in the room where they faced each other instead of the camera.
Etta was beginning to have moments when the faces no longer felt like theirs, and she wondered if actually these were movie stars looking fondly at each other in a hazy light, not the two of them smiling sheepishly in a studio full of dust, where her mother had negotiated a discount with the owner in exchange for a few extra hours of cleaning the next week.
The house was a sturdy two-story home, with most of the living downstairs and most of the sleeping upstairs. A formal living room at the front always felt like the family museum, a record of their decades together. The back of the house was cozier and more alive, with a kitchen rotating between the scent of coffee, of food, and of cleaning, only to repeat the cycle the next day, and a family room with chairs and a couch. Etta boiled water on the stove now to have for later, even though the humidity of the outside air threatened to fog the windows and seal her in before the storm even started. She grabbed a mug from the cupboard and waited at the stove, letting it boil and boil without noticing, because she was watching the backyard tree watch the sky above it.
They planted the tree the year they moved in. It was a scrawny maple tree that was a sapling for more years than she had patience for. Then she looked away from it one day and when she looked back twenty years later it was a full-grown tree, one that no one would ever think had been a child. The nooks where she had hung birdhouses and strung lights for summer parties in their first years of marriage were broad arms now, sweeping up and out toward the fences on either side of the yard.
When she was a child, she had dreamed of a backyard maple. Something about the words together made her think of all the possibilities held within a tree. The climbing that children could do, the lights that could be hung, the nests that could be built, and the leaves that could grow and fall and grow again. They had planted the tree together, but it was her desire that brought them to the nursery, and her enthusiasm that kept him in the hot June sun digging the hole large enough for the small sapling’s roots.
Now, the tree stood still against the blustery sky, waiting for the threat of rain to turn into a promise.
Etta turned to the family room and watched her husband sleep. He was old now, just as old as her. When she was busy with her life, the young faces in the living room seemed strangers to her. But when she thought about their younger days, her old face in the mirror and his asleep in his chair in the living room, also seemed like strangers. She wondered sometimes if death was not brought by the end of the body, but by the end of the soul. How many more memories could she hold? How much longer could she hold onto the present without losing what she knew about the past?
Peter slept with his eyes slightly open. It was disconcerting to visitors, but she knew just how to see him best. When she wanted his attention, she would sit in the chair next to him, letting his partially-open eyes console her into believing he had a response. When she wanted him to sleep, she would sit on the couch across from him and watch him drift off, every day like the Sunday afternoons they used to spend together taking daytime naps.
They were together when they began feeling old—when his back hurt after sitting and when her gray hairs outpaced her hair dyeing sessions. And they were still together now that age had settled into its position on their faces, letting their eyes lose color and their cheeks sag, keeping their feet close to the floor as they walked and weighing down their minds as they searched for the events they knew they remembered somewhere.
Etta sat now on the couch across from him with her mug scorching her hand. He looked peaceful, and she talked to him without thinking about it. “We’re in for a rough night. It’s going to be a good storm.”
The storm broke just after 6 p.m., when everyone in the neighborhood was home from work and every stomach was full of dinner. The last car on Etta’s street slipped into its driveway and its owner ran inside just as the first drops of rain splattered onto the black tar.
Children up and down the street rushed to their windows as thunder clapped in the sky and lightning sliced it open. Etta left Peter and her mug in the back room and went to her front window to watch the storm fire its ammunition on the trees, the street, the cars that didn’t have garages, and the bushes that needed trimming. Across from her house, the empty swing hanging from a neighbor’s tree tossed with the force of the barrage.
The storm came with heavy footsteps, stomping through the yards like a child over his toys. The grass drank until it was full, and then the rain rushed to the street, filling the drains with clean rainwater for the sewers to tarnish, carrying leaves and blades of grass in the current. Across from Etta’s house, a trash can lid blew onto the lawn, a spot of silver darkened the grass.
The light slipped fully away for the night as the clouds crowded the sky. The streetlights popped on, underwhelming reinforcements against a winning darkness. Etta watched the world fill up with things that were not hers. A deflated beach ball floated down toward a sewer drain, and branches landed on her lawn from willow trees two houses down.
When the darkness was complete, a light clicked on in the house across the street. Two faces left the window and scampered away as the curtains shut, leaving only a gauzy yellow square of light to remind the darkness that the children were at home.
After Peter was asleep for the night, Etta turned on the lamp next to her bed and read her book. She felt her own yellow square of light pulsing against the rain outside the window, fighting its own war as she sat removed inside. Her eyes drooped over a slow sentence, comforted by the distance created by the thin sheet of glass between her warm bed and the thick rain pouring down. She clicked off her lamp and she heard a snap. A crackle of lightning lit up her room. For a moment, she could see her own face in the mirror across from the bed, eyes wide. The tree outside shook with the bolt, and a branch bent like a finger and collapsed into her bedroom window.
The glass shattered and the noise of the rain assailed her ears even before she recognized the wetness of the wind. Grabbing a robe, she rushed downstairs to Peter’s chair, now reclined for sleep. He had not woken up. She ran back upstairs and began her battle with the rebellious branch.
Etta did not know how long it took her to get the branch out of her room, but she did it, even as the storm raged on. She patched the window with a garbage bag, the tape resisting sticking onto the wet wooden window frame. She draped a heavy blanket over the bag and taped some more. The blanket in place, she ran downstairs to see Peter again. His eyes were partway open, and he snored softly in his sleep.
Etta could not sleep now. She boiled water again and stood at the back window, not seeing anything outside, but feeling the outside look in. Nothing could stop the rain now. She felt it filling her mind, pushing out everything else. She couldn’t think of the planter that needed replacing on the front porch or the dirty dishes she needed to wash from dinner. She didn’t think of the window upstairs where the rain was slowly seeping into her bedroom carpet, or even of Peter, sleeping oblivious on a medical chair ten steps away.
She stood in the dark kitchen and tried to watch the backyard maple, but she couldn’t see anything through the dense march of the storm. Then, a neighbor’s porch light flickered on, and she saw it all. The whole ground was covered in water, rippled and tossed by the wind. It rose up the trunk of the backyard maple, climbing toward the lowest branches. The surface surged and splashed against the window, as if she had stepped forward into a deep lake, carrying her whole house with her.
She stepped back and raced to the front windows. The water filled her yard, lapping over the flower pots on her porch. Down the driveway, there was no street, no trash can lid on the lawn across from her, no squares of yellow light from the neighbors’ houses.
Etta ran to the family room and turned on the light. Peter was still asleep, restless from the noise of the storm and the snap of the light switch, louder than she meant it to be. She looked at her house, her mug and her chair. She could save so many things, but she could not save him. She was too old to lift him, and he was too lost to help heave his own weight up the stairs.
She watched him sleep and felt the tips of her fingers go numb with indecision. Sweat formed on her forehead as the humidity from the storm coated the room. He would die, and she could only watch.
Upstairs, she could sense the rain pouring in, its own entrance paved by the falling branch. In the front of the house, the rain seeped over the porch, and at the back, she knew the maple was slowly surrendering its branches to the storm. She pulled her chair to Peter’s side and opened the curtain of the back window. She would die holding his hand if she had to, but she would watch her killer come.
The rain surged at the window, a billion soldiers in an infinite army. The glass filled but did not break, even after the water outside passed the height of her chair, of her neck, of her eyes, and finally the whole frame. Her view was only water and glass. As the water slipped higher above her, the storm seemed to rise above also, until its sound was dampened by the flood around her house and their room silent, the thunder was only a distant door shutting from a few houses down. Her view was dark and murky, just another black night on the farm. She looked at the clock; it was 2 a.m. She fell asleep on Peter’s arm, letting her hands fall asleep as they held each other.
When she woke up, the window was empty of water and full of light. The upstairs carpet was soaked through and would need to be replaced. Trees around the neighborhood had been chopped and scarred by the vicious storm. Branches of unfamiliar trees were tossed around her yard, and the leaves of the honey locust trees clung to every surface, flakes of gold on tree trunks and sidewalks and the siding of her neighbor’s garage. The storm had carried a pink bike into Etta’s yard, and she crossed the street to return it to the girl who lived there.
The girl’s dad thanked her and said of the storm, “What a crazy one,” but said nothing of water surging at the seams of their houses, filling their windows and leaving them submerged inside.
She returned to her house and turned on the news. The storm was bad and flooding damaged a thousand houses, leaving mounds of refuse at the curb for trash pick-up later that week. But there were no reports of a Noahic flood sweeping through, no muffled storm above them as they were buried in a sailor’s grave.
She walked from her front door to the kitchen where her mugs sat unwashed in the sink. She washed one for her coffee and looked across to her family room. The couch where she sometimes slept sat untouched by the water. Her chair faced the TV and the place for Peter’s chair was empty, a small end table in its place, filled with DVDs of old TV shows, gifts from her grandchildren from last Christmas.
Etta stared at the end table. Peter was gone, and the storm had nothing to do with it. No flood had threatened them, and no rain had beat them into huddling together for the last good storm. She went upstairs and found that her window was still broken. The blanket she had pinned over it was soaked through with water, hanging heavy toward the floor. The carpet was wet near the window, but only for a few feet. The stairs were dry. The landing was clear. Even the flag next to the front door was folded neatly as it had been the night before.
Etta went into the living room and looked at the photos around it, starting with the most recent as they stood together holding their grandchildren at the nearby lake. The middle photos were all candid and smudged because they had had no time for photo sessions while raising children who needed to eat. She moved to the earliest picture of two movie stars in love.
Etta reached for it and saw that a drop of water had leaked under the glass. She pulled the back of the frame and tugged the photo out. The photo was not just marred by a drop, but soaked with water, even though the frame, the table it sat on, and the ceiling above it were dry. She pulled the photo out and waved it softly to air it out, finally placing it between two books to keep it flat.
The next day, Etta brought the photo out again. Water had seeped in from the edges so that the corners of the photo were now hazy with damage, but the center where their faces met remained pristine, eyes without wrinkles and smiles without hesitation sitting happily on faces that did not know forty years together. Etta put the photo back in its frame and brought it with her to the family room, setting it on the stack of DVDs, two movie stars in a glamorous haze, looking at each other in love.
Story by Natalie Mills
This is our last story in Vol. 1.
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