by Larry W. Van Guilder

Our fear and fascination with powerful storms is timeless and universal. Thus, the storm is a familiar vehicle for addressing the dread of isolation shared by many.

By six-thirty that evening, Mary could see the storm move from its crouched position on the horizon and begin making its way east. Watching the gray clouds darken into shades of purple and grow taller and more ominous, she felt the familiar stirrings that approaching storms had aroused in her since childhood. Rain, the crash of thunder and lightning, an angry sky, and trees bowing and swaying to the will of a freshening wind called to something deep within her. An eldritch world, she thought; beautiful, but lonely.

The gathering storm evoked memories of her mother, and the day she died. Seven years old, Mary had not understood the inexorable workings of cancer. The disease had reduced a strong, beautiful woman to a caricature of her former self, weak and skeletal.

A surreal haze had long surrounded many of Mary’s memories of her mother’s last day. She could not recall the doctor’s arrival, although she remembered him reaching down to stroke her hair as he left. Faces of neighbors, aunts, uncles and cousins had blurred into a featureless array of talking heads, each one mouthing a well-intentioned platitude. But Mary had never forgotten the savage storm that had erupted in late afternoon. She could still hear the cries of nervous livestock as the storm approached; she could still see her father kneeling by her mother’s bed, oblivious to the thunder and lightning breaking over their heads. While the mid-summer tempest clawed at the old farmhouse, she watched her mother’s breathing slow, then stop, as if the storm itself had claimed the woman’s spirit as it passed. She had never felt so terrifyingly alone and abandoned.

Another storm came slashing its way across the broad farmlands later that summer. Even now, a quarter-century removed from that day, she recalled how her loneliness and sorrow had begun to fade as the storm approached. In her child’s view, the storms which had taken her mother were somehow bringing a part of her back.

The wind continued to rise. Mary opened the screen door and walked onto the front porch, drawn by the increasingly vigorous dance of the slender pines lining the road. She inhaled deeply and smiled at the scent of approaching rain, opening her arms and stretching her slim frame to embrace the wind like an old lover.

A clattering sound turned her around, and she frowned at the peeling old shutters that framed the two front windows. Widening strips of weathered gray peeked through a brick-red covering. Like the house itself, they were long overdue for some scraping and a fresh coat of paint.

She turned back to the advancing storm just as her brother Gene pulled his red pickup into the drive. As if on cue, the sky opened and heavy raindrops began to pelt the front yard, igniting tiny explosions of dust on the dry earth. She shook her head and grinned at him, then cupped her hands to yell.

“Don’t you have enough sense to get in out of the rain?”

From inside the truck Gene placed a hand to his ear, then shrugged and opened the door. The wind caught his baseball cap, sending it tumbling toward the road and leaving his balding head open to the rain as he sprinted for the porch. His feet slipped on the rain-slick porch, and Mary laughed as he grasped the porch railing for support.

“And what’s so funny?”

“Oh, just my big brother slipping and sliding through the rain that he doesn’t have the sense to stay out of.”

“Look who’s talking.”

Mary looked down at her soaked dress and noticed for the first time that she was as wet– wetter –than Gene. She placed an inquiring hand to the top of her head, then grinned wryly and drew a thick strand of sopping, brown hair across her forehead as her brother chuckled.

“I didn’t realize I was getting wet. You know me– ”

“Yeah, I know you, Miss ‘Storm-Lover.’ Well, come on girl, let’s get inside before we both drown.”

Mary took him by the hand and opened the screen door. Inside, she turned for another look as the storm’s fury increased. At the sight of rain blowing horizontally through the screen, Gene nudged her.

“Better close the other door, too, unless you want your furniture floating around.”

She nodded, and nudged the door closed.

“I better get these windows,” Gene said.

“Leave them open just a little. So we can hear it better.”

Gene smiled at her and shook his head in feigned despair, but he was careful to leave each window cracked open about one-half inch.

“Happy?”

“Gene, it’s not that I ‘love’ storms. I guess it’s more like a fascination. I feel closer to Mom when a storm passes. I have for years.” Gene said nothing, and she continued. “Now, what in the world brings you over here this afternoon. Don’t you have a farm and a family to tend to?”

“Can’t a brother come and see his sister when he feels like it?” “You were just here the day before yesterday.”

“Well, I the truth is, I had to go into McMinnville anyway, so I just thought I’d stop and say hello on my way back.”

She clucked her tongue disapprovingly. “Gene, Gene. I love you with all my heart, but you are and always have been a terrible liar.”

Gene’s cheeks reddened beneath his leathery tan. When he didn’t answer, Mary walked over and hugged him, standing on tiptoe to reach his shoulders.

“You worry about me far too much.” She stepped back and kissed him lightly on his cheek. “But, thanks.”

He shrugged and looked out the windows. “Storm’s getting worse.”

Mary followed his gaze. “Yes, isn’t it wonderful?”

Gene rolled his eyes. “Wonderful? It won’t be wonderful when this old shack blows away one day. Listen to that wind, Mary. Hell, you can feel the frame shaking. Why don’t you– ”

“Move back with Dad?” she finished for him. “Or maybe in with you and Carol and the kids?”

Gene shifted his gaze from her face to the floor. “Might not be such a bad idea. At least until you decide what you’re going to do.”

Mary smiled at his discomfort, but answered him gently: “What I’m going to do is stay right where I’m at.”

“But, Mary– ” A brilliant lightning flash followed by a deafening peal of thunder erupted overhead before he could finish. In the wake of the thunder, the wind’s shriek increased and the rain flailed the old house even harder.

“Jesus! That was close!” He peered cautiously out the window.

“I’m here, and I won’t let the big, bad storm hurt you,” Mary teased.

“Very funny.” Gene turned from the window and tried to ease back into his pitch. “I was going to say that you can’t keep up the farm forever now that, well, you just can’t. It’s too much.”

“It’s OK to say that Ray is dead. It’s been two years.” Mary went to the window and grasped his arm. “Life goes on. I loved him, I still love him, and I miss him. But life goes on,” she finished in a near-whisper.

Gene fixed his eyes upon the slashing rain as he spoke. “But you’re so… so alone up here, Mary. We all worry about you.”

“Alone?” She savored the word for a moment. “You and Carol are three miles up the road, Dad’s place is less than that, and I’ve got nearly a hundred head of cattle and sixteen geese to keep me company right here,” she finished, smiling.

He turned to her grimly, then laughed in spite of himself. “Geese? I give up.”

“Good! Now let me get you a towel and a dry shirt before you drip all over my floor and catch pneumonia to boot. And while I’m at it I’ll change, too.”

Mary plucked a towel from the linen closet, then walked to her bedroom. She changed into dry clothes, then opened her ancient, over-sized cedar chest and rummaged for one of Ray’s old shirts. At the sight of the worn, red and black plaid pullover she stopped. A packrat from youth, she found disposing of anything a challenge, and all of her husband’s clothes, books, even old movie stubs, could still be found in various caches throughout the old house.

She lifted the shirt from the case and pressed her face into the fabric. Through the pungent cedar, she could still smell Ray, and her eyes glistened briefly before she admonished herself: Get a grip, Mary!

“Here you go.” She tossed him the towel and the shirt.

“Thanks.”

She watched him strip off his wet shirt and dry himself vigorously.

“Not too hard,” she said, pointing to his thinning hair, “you’ll rub off what’s left.”

“Ha, ha, ha.”

“Don’t worry, bald is sexy. Or hasn’t Carol told you?”

“Not lately,” came his muffled reply, as he struggled with the pullover.

She walked back to the window. The storm had not abated in the least. “Gene?”

“Yeah?”

“Remember what you said a minute ago? About being alone?”

“Yeah.”

“Well… oh, never mind. You’ll just laugh at me, anyway.”

“What is it?”

She turned and gave him an appraising look before continuing.

“Well?”

She watched the twitching pines for a long moment before answering. “Alright. But you’ll just think it’s crazy.”

“I can’t think anything unless you tell me what it is.”

“OK.” She went on, slowly. “Since we were kids, since Mom died, I guess, whenever it stormed I imagined that I was the only person left alive in the entire world. See, when a big storm like this comes, it’s easy to feel that way. I mean, right now, for all we know we’re the only people left alive. A storm like this isolates you. I don’t know, maybe it’s because all that power just makes you feel so small and insignificant, as if it might just take you away, or take everyone else away. It’s just you, the wind, the rain, the thunder and lightning. The rest of the world may as well not exist. You’re alone, just you and the storm. See?”

Gene stared at her.

“Well? Haven’t you ever felt that way?”

“No, I can’t say that I have.”

She turned to him and shrugged. “See, I told you that you’d think it was crazy.” She continued, pointing a taunting finger in his direction: “On the other hand, you have no imagination.”

“I have plenty of imagination and I don’t think you’re crazy. I just think you spend too much time by yourself.” He stooped and peered out the window again. “Man, is it ever getting dark. When is this thing going to pass?”

“Maybe never.” She gave a ghoulish chuckle. “But in the meantime, I’ll turn on some lights.”

Gene watched her switch on the living room lamps. “There you go with that crazy talk again.”

“Crazy? I thought you just told me I wasn’t crazy?”

“I didn’t mean it in a bad way. More like silly than crazy, I guess.”

“Oh, now I’m just another silly woman? I think I’m insulted.”

Clearly exasperated, Gene opened his mouth to reply, but the blinding sear of lightning trailed by a roar of thunder that shook the house cut him short, and he jumped back from the window in alarm.

“Dammit!”

“Close, huh?”

“Too close!”

Mary returned to the window.

“Listen, Gene.”

“To what?”

“Tell me what you hear.”

“Nothing but wind and rain. Hell, I can barely hear you.”

“That’s right. Nothing but the wind, the rain and the thunder. You can’t hear one thing that would indicate there’s another living soul on earth but the two of us, right here. And even if we weren’t here, the storms would come and go just like they always have. Do you think storms pay one bit of attention to us? Does the storm care whether we exist or not?”

Gene grimaced. “Are you going to start that again?” He paused. “Anyway, storms don’t think.”

Mary pushed away from the window and faced him. “Sorry. Too much imagination for my own good. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“I’m not upset.”

“You sound like you are.”

“No, I just… wait a minute. I’ll put a stop to this.” He stepped over to the television and bent down to turn it on.

“The television? In this weather?” Mary asked.

“I’m only going to turn it on for a minute, just to prove to you that the whole damn world hasn’t gone away.”

He tugged the on/off switch and the television crackled to life. They watched as the picture tube gradually grew brighter.

“Well, it may be raining outside, but it’s snowing on channel 4.”

“Let me try channel 9,” Gene answered. “It should come in better.”

Snow.

“Storm’s probably knocked out some transmitters. If you would have let me put that satellite dish in for you last spring like I wanted we wouldn’t have this problem.”

“Don’t give me a hard time about that satellite dish. I didn’t need it then and I don’t need it now.” She stepped around him and turned off the set. “And we don’t need this either.”

Gene glared at the lifeless television as if the machine had betrayed him.

“Now,” Mary began, “what was that about proving– ”

She didn’t finish the sentence, interrupted by the loudest crash of thunder and lightning since the storm had erupted. As if he were bathed in strobe light, Mary watched her brother twist jerkily away from the television and tumble to the floor. In the darkness that followed the flash, the living room lamps flared brightly before extinguishing.

“Are you alright, Gene?”

“I’m OK, just slipped. Where are your candles or your flashlight?”

“Don’t move, I’ll find something.”

Mary groped cautiously through the dark living room for the entrance to the hallway. Guiding herself with one hand on the wall, she came to the utility closet and opened the door. It took several minutes of fumbling through the untidy storage area before she found the candles, two old brass candlesticks, and a box of wooden matches.

Gene had regained his feet when she returned with the lit candles.

“Sure you’re alright?”

“Yeah. Never have liked storms. Not since…”

“Not since Mom died? I know. And I guess I got you spooked with all that stuff about, you know, being the ‘only ones left.’ Sorry.”

“Forget about it.” As she tried to read his expression in the flickering light, he went on: “Hear that?”

“What?”

“The storm. I think it’s passed on.”

She listened, startled to realize that she had not noticed the quiet before now. Mary handed one of the candles to her brother and walked carefully through the dimness to the front door. It opened upon damp stillness.

“I better call Carol.”

“Yes,” Mary agreed, then added: “Do you think the phones are working?”

“Only one way to find out.” Gene carefully placed his candle on an end table and picked up the telephone receiver. “Got a dial tone.”

Watching, Mary nodded.

Seconds ticked by before he replaced the receiver. “No answer.”

“Well, maybe it’s not working on your end.”

“I guess not.”

Mary paused, then said: “Try Dad.”

Gene picked up the handset and dialed the number. In the dead, calm stillness of the room she could hear the ringing in the receiver. Finally, reluctantly, Gene hung up.

Fighting back a sudden, choking panic, she said, too quickly: “The phones are probably out everywhere.”

“Then why is this one working?”

“I don’t know. But we don’t even know that our call is really going through, do we? I mean, just because we hear it ringing doesn’t prove it’s connecting, does it?”

Gene didn’t answer right away, apparently considering her explanation. “I don’t know, Mary.” Then: “I better go.”

“Wait! I just had an idea.” She walked past him to the phone, picked up the receiver and began dialing.

“You aren’t the only one who likes to ‘prove’ things.”

“Who are you calling?”

“Just wait, this ought to show that our calls just aren’t going through.” The phone rang once in her ear, clicked, and a meticulously annunciating female voice said: “When you hear the tone, the time will be seven-twenty-nine… ”

She slapped down the receiver. Not even the flickering candlelight could hide the mounting fear and confusion on Gene’s face.

He started hurriedly for the door. “I have to go.”

“Gene! Wait!” She rushed to catch up as he took the porch and the steps in three long strides and ran to his truck. He had his keys in the ignition before Mary got to the pickup’s door. He rolled down the window as he turned the key and the engine sprang to life.

“I’ll call you as soon as I get there.”

“Promise me you will,” Mary said, still struggling for breath.

Gene nodded and shifted the truck into reverse.

“Wait, Gene! Listen, all this stuff, the phones, the television, my crazy talk. It’s all just a weird coincidence. I mean, the storm just shook us up, that’s all. You know we aren’t alone out here!”

When he didn’t answer, Mary grabbed his arm and pointed to the dash: “The radio! Try the radio, Gene!”

He twisted the dial with nervous fingers, from one end to the other. Static.

“That’s AM. Try FM!”

Nothing.

“I have to go, Mary.”

“Call me as soon as you get there.”

He nodded.

“Better yet, come back yourself and let me know everybody’s alright.”

She wasn’t certain that he heard her last request as he backed the truck down the wet driveway. She yelled again as he reached the road and turned his truck toward his home: “It’s just the storm! We’ll laugh about this tomorrow! It’s just the storm!”

She watched until she could no longer see the truck’s taillights. Back indoors, with the candle to light her way, she went to the bedroom and pulled a windbreaker from her closet. She put on the nylon jacket and decided to wait on the porch until Gene called or came back.

Outside, the air was cool, but humid. Thinning clouds backlit by a full moon covered the sky from horizon to horizon. As the minutes passed, she found herself thinking, improbably, of a Jimmy Buffet song, “If the Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’s Me.” Gallows humor, Mary, she thought, and leaned her head back against the porch railing, closing her eyes.

In the cool air, exhausted by the events of the evening, she briefly nodded off. Minutes later, she couldn’t tell how long, she awoke to coaxing light, and opened her eyes to the full moon, radiant and complacent. The storm had left a clear sky in its wake, and only the steady drip of water from the house’s leaking gutters disturbed the silence.

She went back into the house and dialed Gene’s number. No one answered. She tried her Dad. She hung up after the twelfth ring.

From the bedroom dresser she took her car keys. She blew out both of the candles at the door and walked over to her old Ford at the edge of the driveway nearest the house. After five minutes of fruitless cranking, sure that she had killed the battery in the process, she gave up and opened the car door, leaving the keys in the ignition.

Mary hesitated at the end of the driveway. She stood quietly for a time, looking and listening for the sights or sounds of traffic from either direction, but nothing disturbed the night’s post-storm tranquility. Dad’s place is closest. But I might need Gene’s help. At last she turned toward her brother’s home, and stepped off with sure strides toward uncertainty, alone save for her shadow on the moonlit country road.