The Storm
A Short Story by Liz Varley
Written using the suggestion "Cold Sweat"
Originally featured on 12-12-2006
As part of our series "Fall Stories"

Holly’s mother was anxious as she made dinner for her, pushing back waves of black hair and shifting from side to side as she let chicken fry up in the pan. She was always this way before dates, even though she seemed to have no trouble with men falling under her spell. Tonight she was wearing a short black skirt and a ruby red shirt that hung delicately from her shoulders. Holly poured herself a second glass of coke, and at the sound of fizz hitting ice, her mother turned around and shook her head.

“No more caffeine for you! You’re worse than your brother!” She pointed her spatula to a spot in the room where her son would’ve likely been standing, had he been there. He was not. Turning back to the stove, she muttered something inaudible under her breath. Holly sucked the remaining soda taste from her ice cubes, crunching them in between her teeth afterwards.

Her brother Matthew had been the one to help in the kitchen. Because he was two years older, he felt compelled to take the place of his father as chef and he had been well on his way until the day he received the news that he was going to Iraq. Garlic had been roasting in the oven when he had walked into the kitchen, placing the letter on the counter, squarely in his mothers vision. She had nodded, continued cooking.

That’s how she always looked now when standing in front of the stove, Holly thought—like she was receiving the news over and over in her head.

The date, when he arrived, was tall and wore a mock black turtleneck, introducing himself as Jack. He had a mark on his ear where it had been pierced, dull brown eyes, a slight sneer. His eyes passed over Holly like they would a cliché Monet print on the wall. She wished she could’ve have acted like her brother, intimidated him, made him straighten his posture, look her dead in the eye, shake her hand like he meant it. Instead he merely smiled, made a comment about American Idol that she could not digest because of it’s inanity. But, as usual, she folded. She told him who she was rooting for in the competition and why, while he nodded absentmindedly, glanced at his watch. His pants were pressed expertly, sloping lightly against his shoe, which tapped on the red brick of the foyer. She listened to it hit, tap tap tap, like a sound she would hear alone in the house and strain her ears to elaborate upon, to find—drops of water falling from the faucet onto the bottom of a stainless steel bowl, or a zipper on a sweatshirt hitting against the inside of the dryer.

Her mouth felt dry as her mother stood at the door, telling her again how she should lock the house, when she should go to sleep, that she still wasn’t allowed to watch HBO. The man had his hands in his pockets, didn’t offer up any advice. Holly wanted to tell her not to go, to stay in with her and curl up on the couch like they used to, maybe, though she couldn’t trust that this was a real memory—often her mother would be perched on the edge with one foot heavy on the floor, ready for action. She was always ready, always seeking out the next step, the options. For some time after Matthew’s deployment, they had sat together watching the news, sometimes until well after dark, neither one of them bothering to turn on the lights, but letting the flickering glow of the television hit the walls. Sometimes her mother would cry, sometimes she would be tight faced, would say she was proud. Rarely, she would throw things at the television—the brush she was holding, the shoe from her foot—the remote control. Holly would sometimes flip to PBS and watch as Jim Lehrer introduced the Roll Call, trying to imagine what it would feel like to see his face on the screen, in his army photo, stern faced and solemn, trying his best to look like a hero.

She tried to imagine the American Idol contestants in military gear, helmets, driving around in the dark in Mosul or Baghdad or Samarra, eyes peeled but aching to close, the only songs playing in their heads serving to calm them, keep rationale alive. Instead they croon at her, their own eyes gleaming against the television screen, begging to be recognized.

Holly feels her mothers hand on her head, lightly smoothing her hair back from her face.

“Honey, we’re going to go now,” she says softly, her finger twisting up a lock of Holly hair, letting it go.

Holly nods, follows them out the door to lock it behind them. Within minutes, she feels the anxiety of being in a house alone, of being in charge of it. She follows the hall into the kitchen, touching the photographs on the wall as she goes by, those of Matthew and herself at Olan Mills, with forced smiles, wearing cozy sweaters. The only reason they went along with it was because there was a TCBY next door. In August of 2001, three weeks after that years picture was taken and two weeks before Holly’s 11th birthday, Matthew stole the car and drove to Utah, the last place their father had been seen. Her mother had paced the kitchen for hours, calling every person she knew of with any connection to Matthew, and tracked him to Missoula, Montana, where he was staying with a friend of his fathers.

He made it back a week and a half later, with a slight growth of beard that Holly had never noticed before, and didn’t speak to his mother for a week. For that week he sat in his room, listening to Led Zeppelin and writing letters to a man who had taken off into the Alaskan wilderness years before, a man who had left his newborn daughter and five-year old son in the middle of the night.

Matthew had invited Holly into his room in the middle of that week, told her all he had found out from their father’s friends, most of which was trivial. She didn’t care that he had won a hot dog eating contest or loved crossword puzzles, that he secretly wanted to be a geologist—to her he was a man dressed in black jeans, big work boots, wearing a dark look that told strangers to stay away. He spoke of him like he did the men in the fables he would read to her when she was little, a fictitious hero. He roamed the earth freely, Matthew told her, with little regard for anyone else, and what was wrong with that? he wanted to know. Their father had joined the army when he was nineteen, and he was going to do the same.

What else had he done? she wanted to know, but he was tight lipped about it, and said he would tell her when she was older, more mature. Holly doubted there was anything about his trip that would’ve shocked her, but she let him have it.

She stood in Matthew’s room now, his bed made, which it never had been when he was home, a vase full of daisies on his desk underneath a picture of Jimi Hendrix. A stack of empty envelopes sat next to the daisies, the letters of each unfolded and piled there, the air between the pages seeming to inflate them, as if they will lift up and fly away. She takes them in her hands, flips through them, reading a line or two from each, so that they are nonsensical. She wants to fold them up and hide them in a box, pretend perhaps that he was down at the store where he had worked before being sent, or over at Danny Rice’s, playing drums, drinking the lukewarm Budweiser Danny stole from his dad. Holly would ride her Schwinn over to Danny’s sometimes, prop up her bike and join them in the garage, in a corner where she wouldn’t be accused of interrupting. Often, her presence would go unnoticed as she did her homework, writing book reports on Of Mice and Men and The Great Gatsby, or deciphering fractions. Occasionally, Matthew would look right at her and tell her to go home, that she was bad luck, that she made the amps sound shitty.

Sitting on his bed, she closes her eyes and pictures him there, wearing the most familiar clothes she could think of, his brown hair wild around his head, a figure in loose space. For a moment, she is frightened, opens her eyes quickly, fearing that he will be standing there, that she will be looking at his ghost. Scouring the room, she sees nothing but what has always been there.

The phone rings, the sound almost electric in her ears. She answers the cordless phone attached to her belt loop.

“Holly?” her mothers voice sounds through the phone. She is in a car, Holly can tell, by the slap of wind against the cell phone.

“Holly, there’s a storm approaching, so we might be home a little earlier than expected. Can you make sure to close the windows?”

“Yeah,” Holly mutters, her voice feeling plastic. She hears Jack’s voice in the background, the words unintelligible, sounding like the rumbling of thunder. Hanging up he phone, she circles the house, closing all the windows, after which she stands on the back stoop, the warm storm winds wrapping around her calves. She thinks of herself as being alone, the last person on the planet, her mother and brother only memories, her shadow of a father only an illusion.

As the first drops of rain hit her arm, she steps back inside, the screen door closing hesitantly behind her. The wind brushes up underneath, flipping the leaves to reveal their iridescent bottoms. She wishes she could be like the Maple tree, standing through relentless storms, immortally strong. She wishes she could turn around and see her mother and brother at the table, cleaning up the last scraps of dinner, talking peacefully, or arguing, pushing each others buttons playfully. Holly would laugh when they tried to drag her into the conversation with remarks ending in “right, Holly?”, both of them waiting for a wise ass response. She would never bite, and her mother would say things like, “I don’t know where you get your patience from,” and hold a palm against her cheek thoughtfully. Holly was like her father, she said often—impossible to read, emotions buried deeper than diamonds.

The storm moved in quickly, the dense clouds flowing through the sky like glacial spread, evenly toppling over one another, tossing bolts of lightening back and forth. She counted between thunder and lightening, the time grew shorter, the lightening bolts longer, now reaching out to the land, seeming to prick the pavement. The thunder collapsed heavily, like a bowling ball down a flight of stairs through the front window, the plates in the cabinets clamoring.

Holly breathes deeply as she sits at the kitchen table, going over the scientific explanations behind the noises, the sounds—lightening, she tells herself, is only the particles of air expanding, the thunder the noise this makes, because everything makes a noise. She stares at the space in front of the sink, a towel thrown over the edge haphazardly. She concentrates on the pattern of the towel, struggling to keep herself from conjuring up the image of Matthew at the window, his palms pressed into the counter, elbows buckled in tight.

The rain pelts against the house wildly, the lights flicker. Holly presses her palms into the table, her skin beginning to grow cool with fear, her mind shuffling through a series of comforting thoughts, each one abandoned to follow the trail of a gust of wind, or to become mesmerized by the hit and flow of raindrops on the windowpane. Outside the grass is getting flattened, thick currents of rainwater are running parallel down the road, taking out anthills and miscellaneous debris.

She reprimands herself for being scared, telling herself that others are going through much worse right now, that Matthew is surrounded daily and nightly by fear—his own and that of others, his fellow soldiers and the people of the country, torn in their own ways by politics, religion, protecting those that they love from harm. If he was killed, she thought, she wouldn’t know who to blame. She thinks of bullets, blood on sand, the father she’d never known and the brother she knew so well as to be able to capture his voice in her head perfectly, she sees them in uniform, against a background she can only fabricate, filled in with dense browns and blacks, smoke and ash. The tenseness of her body is overwhelming as the worst of the storm engulfs the house, she screams as the power goes out and the darkness swims in around her eyes, the sound of the thunder like an amped up kick drum in her ears as she crawls under the table, sitting with her arms wrapped around her calves. The lightening illuminates the kitchen once, she searches the room, sees nothing. She waits, holding her breath unintentionally, trying to move her limbs, but they are rigid. In another effort to calm herself down, she finds herself growing more afraid, feeling that there is someone in the room with her, and as her eyes begin to grow accustomed to the light, she presses them into the dark of the room, always feeling that there is something directly behind her.

She feels a cold sweat rise on her skin and prick up the hairs of her neck as the lightening flashes again, she looks to the doorway and sees him, her brother, standing there, looking directly at her with heavy eyes, blackened face, thick clothing—with him comes the smell of sulfur. She wants to close her eyes but fears that is she does, when she opens them again he will be gone, or worse, much closer. Instead she stares at him, the slight glint against his cheekbones, his belt buckle. She can feel her heart beating in her throat, its ferocity hurting the insides of her ears. With the next illumination, he is gone, and she whips her head around, sees nothing. Adrenaline brings her to her feet abruptly, hitting her head on the edge of the table as she runs through the doorway where he was just standing, holding her breath and closing her eyes as if running under a waterfall, fumbles with the front lock for a moment before throwing open the door, leaping out into the rain, running in the direction that seems best, her bare feet sinking into the wet, muddy ground. She yells into the wind, into the rain, letting out a trail of obscenities, her hot tears mixing with the cool rain on her face, her throat burning with rage.

When she stops, the rain is dying down and a wave of exhaustion comes over her. She turns back in the direction of her house, not wanting to face her mother, or Jack, or the quiet that will be in her room later as she tries to sleep, tries to rub the image of Matthew from her brain.

She understands the desire to run away, to roam freely, but she ignores it, starts to plan her story, how she will tell it, how the hot shower will feel.

Read More By Liz Varley

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