THE STORM RETURNS
The storm was relentless and showed no intention of slackening. Instead its ferocity increased and dragged the man a step further towards the breaking point. He wondered how much longer he would last before meltdown, a thought that had barely crossed his mind when another blast of thunder pushed him closer to the answer. He shook so hard it felt like his body would crumble. With every crash of thunder he was flooded with memories; haunted visions of a faraway place he yearned to forget. Decades ago the weather had changed his life. Watching the tempest rage outside his attic window it was the sense of history repeating that most filled him with dread.
His house was moderately sized, but adequate. Ask the man’s family and they would describe it as cosy. The same was not said of the attic, and accordingly it was rarely entered. It would take his wife and children hours to find him cowering there; and before that he had been missing for some time. That his wife had sensed his absence from their bed so long before she would normally wake suggested something powerful about their relationship.
Initially she had conducted her search alone. It had begun sluggishly; and given the early hour this was understandable. But when the wind blew whispers of past events into her ear, not a bucket of icy water or a slap in the face could have sharpened her wits more effectively.
The apocalypse rides to us on the back of the storm.
The words had lingered, buzzing around her head like a swarm of vengeful bees. Startled into alertness and driven by an escalating fear her pace had instantly quickened. Beginning with their walk-in wardrobe and en suite, she had worked her way to the kids’ room down the hall, and finally to the lavatory downstairs, reviewing the kitchen, study and living room as she did so. Finding them all deserted her fear had taken a giant leap towards panic.
Returning to the kitchen she had tried to reach him on his mobile, but a robotic voice had informed her it was either switched off or out of service range. Meanwhile the pounding rain and howling wind had grown louder, the combination of elements overpowering her senses. Collapsing onto a stool behind the kitchen bench she’d tried to focus and diffuse her panic with logic. Doubtful the Fates would wish upon them ill when they had already sacrificed so much. Unlikely the gods or demigods – some of whom they had personally met – would disrupt their lives again.
How awful her uncertainty was, the torment that accompanied it like rot.
Remember how you first met...
With the voice’s return more questions had sprung forth to harass her psyche. Since they’d been married her husband had never gone anywhere without informing her first; even if it was to visit the convenience store down the street she’d been notified. What would cause him to break that habit? Was it the storm? It was conceivable; it was the fiercest they’d experienced since living there. Amiable weather was part of the reason they had moved to Australia in the first place. In this regard Queensland had traditionally treated them well.
Perhaps THEY’VE returned and followed you there? the whisper had then proposed.
Impossible, she’d thought in reply. But with her husband missing her denial had sounded hollow, and she’d been only able to imagine the worst.
Halfway into her solitary search the panic to threaten her earlier had possessed her entirely. Yet still she’d abstained from disrupting the children. It wasn’t her intention to wait out the hour before rousing them. It wasn’t even that they had heard her desperate cries over the thunder and rain. Instead, dead on 4:00 A.M., they’d latched onto that millennia old connection children shared with their mothers. Call it instinct or otherwise, something had called them to her.
She had tried valiantly to hide her tear-streaked cheeks when the children had first approached, disguising her shaky voice with as casual a tone as she could muster. But there was no escaping that inexplicable maternal link; they had sensed anxiety rippling off her in waves.
It was Will, the older of the two children, who had then taken the lead.
The man’s eyes were bloodshot and puffy. Had he slept at all? He couldn’t remember. It hadn’t been raining when he’d gone to bed; the entire day had been bright and cloudless. And yet somehow, way before the first rumble of thunder or raindrops had fallen, he’d been invaded by a sense of foreboding. A whiff of something unresolved had accompanied it. Initially he’d dismissed it as nonsense, burying himself beneath his bed covers along with his apprehensions. A successful ploy, until the first flash of lightening cut across the sky. After that neither he nor his unease could remain dormant.
He had begun by retrieving a dusty cardboard box, long ago hidden among the attic’s paraphernalia. Its contents were now strewn across his large mahogany desk. Self-help books he’d purchased shortly after his arrival in Brisbane took up most of the space. From these, chapters highlighted years before sprang out at him. Dealing with Loss, stated one heading. Surviving Success, said another. Other highlighted titles read: Nightmares and their Hidden Meanings, The anatomy of a Dream, and How to Cure Recurring Nightmares. Elsewhere on the desk were strewn newspaper clippings from around the globe. Strange colours seen in stormy London skies, declared one such headline. Voice from the stars heard by dozens at Central Park, claimed another. He didn’t need to reread the articles to remember how each began:
Meteorologists from around the world continue to struggle to explain the onslaught of bizarre weather that plagued our atmosphere last week…
The second: Alien invaders, heavenly creatures, or an elaborate hoax? Witnesses in Central Park cannot verify precisely what they heard on…
Other clippings revolved around this same theme. The fringe of the mystical tempest he’d been a part of (a dimension away?) had touched his home. He had spent several weeks tracking down the witnesses in the second article, exhausted vast quantities of resources and energy confirming what they’d heard: what the voice sounded like, what they believed it had said. It hadn’t made his loss any easier.
In the middle of all this literature was a small wooden box, which looked as though it had never been opened. When lightning struck, tiny cracks in the wood flared pink. The man shuddered whenever this caught his attention.
Thirty-nine years old, he thought, and still haunted by monsters in the closet.
His life could be split into two parts: before he and his best friend had taken the boat, and after the boat had returned. Moving to a new country had generated some relief, short-term though it was, in that the physical reminders of his past were largely out of sight. The baggage one carried inside however could not be ditched so easily. To the financial delight of several psychiatrists, this lesson he had learned the hard way.
He kept his back to the desk, opting instead to stare vacantly through the small and round attic window embedded in the wall behind it. When the sun was out bright rays would often sift through to light the wooden counter (the attic was originally intended to be his workstation, but the man abandoned the idea after suspecting the isolation from his family would be too pronounced). This morning there were no radiant rays, only bleak and eerily shifting shadows. Though the gloom intensified his isolation, he was presently untroubled by it. He welcomed it. Exorcising his demons necessitated solitude. What he also needed was courage to begin the exorcism process, a quality he currently lacked.
But some demons craved release, seizing any opportunity to induce their freedom. Whether their persistence helped him along or he was simply hypnotised by the storm (more than likely it was both), the man was lured back to confront his dreaded past. When the hail began clattering he was utterly ensnared. As a former colleague had once informed him, there was no escaping the wrath of the storm.
Thunder exploded with unparalleled ferocity. To punctuate its power, a wild dagger of lightning brightened the sky and revealed the storm in all its malevolent glory. Downstairs the children screamed, clutching their mother tightly. They were yet to find their father, and this moment was the catalyst to set Will going. Eager to prove to his younger sister Novak his superiority (and also that his shout had been a roar of determination rather than a shriek of terror), he elected to seek their father alone. His mother held fast to him and demanded he do no such thing, but with a vigorous shove he freed himself and ran upstairs and into the hallway. Why he was drawn to the attic’s entrance he could not tell. Did a paternal psychic bond exist between man and child the way evolution had forged one maternally for the league of mothers? Whatever the reason, that was where he ended up, and that was where he climbed.
In the confines of the attic, the sky’s wrath was felt as much as heard, the room shaking as though it too feared the storm. The walls constantly vibrated. The floor trembled for mercy. Beside him, the windowpane rattled in its frame. Both the Dictaphone the man had been holding in his jittering right hand and the glass-framed photo in his left dropped to the floor. The glass shattered as it landed, the sound overtaken by a prolonged crash of thunder. The man winced at the sight of his belongings. The frame was a mess of splinters. Fortunately the picture had escaped damage, as had the small recording device.
Gently freeing the photo from its broken casing he wished for the thousandth time things had worked out differently for the people in it. Not with the overall conclusion; he wouldn’t have traded the birth of his children or the love of his wife for anything. Rather, the way things had ended between him and his best friend. Why hadn’t he been able to save him from the evil—
The atmosphere let loose its most terrifying detonation yet, breaking his thoughts midway. Like a gunshot at the start of a race he was urged to begin. It was time for the Dictaphone.
The small attic window rattled and pinged as the elements struck against it. The wail of the wind sent shivers down his spine, stroking his soul like the spirits of a thousand lost compatriots. It was no wonder then that he didn’t hear the panel in the floor behind him swing open, or the ladder as it unfolded to the level below. His son’s head appeared through the small aperture as the man pressed record on the Dictaphone.
“How does one rationalise all that happened during that incredible week, in a life that ended twenty-two years ago?”
A metallic crash sounded behind him, and for the second time the photo went flying. The Dictaphone was spasmodically tossed into a nearby trashcan and the man jumped from his chair. This time the ruckus had come from inside the attic. If it was thunder, it had finally worked out a way to attack him indoors, and that being the case he had no place left to hide.
To his relief it was not thunder that had caused the clatter but his son. The boy had toppled over a metal rack of shelves. His sister was behind him.
The man stared blankly at his children: Will sprawled over the metal rack and his daughter trying to help him up. The world he had begun to delve into – that of his former self – and the evidence of his current environment was terribly hard to reconcile. His breathing remained heavy as his eldest mumbled an excuse for the clamorous tumble.
“… was only ’cause you tripped me.”
“I didn’t touch you,” Novak said, taking offence at the accusation.
“Then how do you explain this mess?” Will asked, brushing dust from his shoulders and chest. His sister patted down his arms to help.
“I don’t know, but I’m sure I didn’t touch you,” she repeated.
Eventually the pair turned their gaze to their father, uncertain of what to make of his conflictingly empty yet fiery expression.
“You’re not supposed to be up here,” the man stated after his brain had finally synced with his eyes.
“Sorry,” said Will, “didn’t mean to scare you.”
“You didn’t scare me,” his father replied, bending to retrieve the photo from the wood slatted floor.
“Then why did you throw your recorder in the bin?”
Will had always been too smart for his own good, the frequency with which he spat out sarcastic remarks so reminiscent of his eponym that the man often didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Right now it grated his patience. He withdrew the small device from the bin and replaced it on the desk.
“Are you catching a story daddy?” Novak asked.
Catching was the term her father used to explain his job. He was a fiction writer, and whenever anyone asked him to define the creative process, he always used this analogy. “I’m a hunter venturing into unknown territory in search of elusive creatures,” he would begin. “But unlike the game hunter who kills what he finds, I want to catch it and show it to the world. Generally, I have an idea of the species I’m after, but rarely does my catch end up looking the way I predicted. There are only three things I’m certain of when I go in: I have to find something, I’ll know it when I see it, and I won’t come out until I’ve got it. What happens next is a mutual exploration between me, what I find and the land it inhabits. Where the journey concludes – the ending ... well, sometimes it’s pleasant and sometimes it’s not. All I can hope is that when I share my discoveries those compelled to engage in the results are more enlightened because of it.”
Their father impatiently flicked a speck of dirt from the picture and exhaled deeply. “No, I’m … well, in a way.”
“Is this one supposed to make you less afraid of storms?” Will asked.
“I’m not afraid of storms,” the man said, unsure why he bothered to deny the obvious.
“Then why do you always get edgy when there’s thunder and lightning?” Novak asked.
“Yeah, and why did you disappear up here?” Will added. “We’ve been trying to find you for ages.”
“Because I …” it was starting to sound like an inquisition and the man’s impatience morphed into frustration. He tried to calm himself. “Listen to me, both of you. I need to finish this, and to do that I need silence. So can you—”
“Be real quiet?” Will prompted. “Definitely.”
“Unquestionably,” Novak said. “Like mice. Mice with slippers on, so you can’t even hear the scratching of their little feet.”
The man was shaking his head when a bout of lightning caused him to clutch at his chest in pain.
“Cardiac arrest!” Will exclaimed.
“It’s not cardiac arrest!” barked his father, concentrating hard to relax his rigid hands. “Discomfort from the weather,” he concluded and straightened his shirt.
“Rheumatic,” mumbled Will out the corner of his mouth.
“You can’t get rheumatism from a scar,” his sister schooled.
“Rheumatism is a disease that affects the joints, muscles and fibrous tissue.” He paused and then added, “Doofus.”
“Did you hear that dad? He called me a doofus.”
The man sighed. “This sort of inane banter is precisely why you can’t be here.”
“What?” Will said, appalled. “Dear sister you misunderstood.” He turned to their father with utmost sincerity. “I was calling her Dufay. Surely you know the fifteenth century French composer? To me, her voice is like music.”
The man raised an eyebrow to his son. “Lay off the Wikipedia, net-junkie.” At this Novak giggled, and it became too much for Will not to smile, much as he tried to restrain it.
“This is not funny,” the man said. “This is for your own protection. I’ll go a step further. Do you believe in magic?”
The question caught them like ice cubes thrown down the backs of their shirts. They glanced at each other like their father had lost his mind.
“Magic?” Will asked, his brow furled.
“Yeah,” the man said, racking their focus back to him. “Like the stuff in those Larry Potter books.”
“Harry Potter,” Novak corrected, and both children giggled again.
“Do you?” the man repeated, firmly enough to expunge their amusement. “Do you ever watch a fantasy movie and believe the events transpiring could actually happen? From the stunned expression on your face Will, I can see this is already getting too much for you to handle.”
“Only because from the sort of movies you watch, and those sappy books you’ve written, I’m shocked you’re even aware of those genres.”
The man held fast to his stoicism.
“Sorry Dad,” Will continued, “but DVD commentaries and behind-the-scenes features have revealed to us what the real magic is. It’s called special effects and CGI.”
The man studied his daughter, who nodded in agreement with her brother. “Well, that’s it then,” he said with a perplexing mix of disappointment and relief. “At your age the magic should still be real, not an illusion. With your present mindset, if I were to invert those beliefs – were I, your own father, to tell you that magic is in fact very real, you might go mad! Because kids, what I’m doing here is telling a story, an incredible true story, and it’s scary and will assuredly give you both horrible nightmares.”
Will had been gradually edging his way towards his father, and now approached the books on the desk. “I see,” he began, casually sweeping his eyes over the text in one of the articles. “So in catching this story you’re exercising those nightmares.”
“Right,” Novak said, picking up from where her brother left off. “Setting them free is a method of catharsis.”
The man nodded absentmindedly. “Can you see where I’m coming from? Neither of you are old enough to comprehend the intricacies of what I’m attempting. This tale is simply beyond your intellectual levels.” He knew none of this was true. This was not the first time he’d been exposed to their precociousness. At fourteen and twelve the pair was easily brighter than most individuals twice their age. Yet their IQ’s notwithstanding, his words were absolutely genuine in that he didn’t want them to hear his horrific and – worse than that, inexplicable – tale. Was it however because he didn’t want to scare them, or because he was afraid they might handle it better than he did?
“Why don’t you assess our reactions extemporaneously?” Will suggested, pausing after his big word in the hopes of strengthening its impact. “If you believe at any stage we’re getting scared, then send us away.”
The man ignored the word and eyed them suspiciously. “An interesting theory. But if I know you two, you’ll pretend something isn’t scary when in reality it terrifies you to the core.”
“Why would we do that?” Novak asked.
“Perhaps because one doesn’t want the other to think he or she is the braver. Not only to avoid the inevitable taunts, but also because in one of you being sent away the other will know something the other doesn’t know.” He spoke this last part like a scornful child, completely undermining their impressive perspicacity.
“How about we discard the cynical ’tude,” Will said, “start with that photo in your hand, and go from there.”
The man was mortified. “You see even a fraction of this photo and kiss your sanity goodbye. This bad boy,” he flicked the picture coolly, “is a nightmare frozen in time.”
Novak had steadily flanked her father and was peering up at the photograph. “It doesn’t look scary to me, everyone’s smiling.” She pointed at two of the faces. “Hey, is that you and mum?”
Scowling at his daughter he slammed the picture against his chest. It wasn’t a shock that Novak had recognised her mother, in over two decades the woman’s beauty had not diminished. But that she had recognised her father was a marvel. He had changed a great deal since that photo was taken, a transformation that had not been cheap.
“Take my word for it Novak, it’s scary.” He lifted the picture slowly, careful to keep its reverse side towards them. “Everyone in this photograph wears a mask of terror. It’s rampant. It’s contagious. Witness it, and you too will come down with a severe case of the frights.”
With the focus on his sister, Will seized the opportunity to manoeuvre his way behind the man’s chair and gained a better look at the image in question. “No, Novak’s right – for once.” (The jibe extracted naught but a snide look from his sister.) “Scariest thing about this picture is the outfits. No goblins or demons. Happy faces only.”
Again the man removed the photo from view. “Happy faces?” he exclaimed. “Happy faces? This is what I mean. You can’t accurately grasp the … clearly you’re too young to …” His gesticulated as if trying to snatch suitable words from thin air, and failing to find any, shook his head. “Fine, you asked for it.” He waved the photo around as if warming up for some rigorous sporting activity. “If this is what it takes to prove it, I’m willing to do it.” He performed a couple more flamboyant gestures with his hand. “Later on I trust you’ll remember that I tried to warn you.” He evaluated their faces and stalled for time. “I’ll show it,” he warned, giving them a final chance to stop him. “Right, if seeing is believing, and that’s what it takes to frighten you away, you got it. Here it comes. The nightmare express is coming at you big time!” He dramatically thrust the picture away from him as though evil spirits might shoot out of it. In the few seconds he allowed for them to examine it, both children had ample opportunity to absorb the image and discern the tone.
In an open and unidentifiable location, seven people – five of whom donned ill-fitting t-shirts and shorts – lined single file. Starting from the left were two males, probably only a few years older than their father was now. Next across were four teenagers (included in this quartet was the pair Novak had identified as her parents): from left to right an overweight male, two very attractive darkhaired girls (these were the only well-dressed individuals), and an athletic boy who pointed at his nose. Completing the septet on the far right stood a man in his early fifties. Apart from this gentleman, who appeared agitated, the rest of the group was smiling with what seemed to be legitimate merriment.
The man studied his children carefully after the photo was pressed back against his chest, choosing to ignore their amused expressions. “Mmm,” he agreed sarcastically, “real happy. I assume you now realise why you haven’t the maturity to handle a story with so much intensity and mysticism.”
“Are you implying,” Novak began, trying to keep the smirk from her face, “that it may influence our perception on reality?”
“From his expression,” added Will, “I’m predicting some indelible imagery.”
The man’s mouth swung open, and he was momentarily powerless to close it. Any pretence of not being impressed by their vernacular went by the wayside. He tried to use his awe as a distraction. “What grade are you two in? Your mother and I should really speak to the school board about skipping you ahead a few years.”
“Oh, please dad!” Will said, not buying into it.
“Yeah, please dad!” Novak echoed.
The man spread a hand across his face and wracked his brain for an escape. “What about Oy the ninth? How do you think he’s handling the storm? You know he isn’t legal and we’d never find a purebred replacement. The line of Oy is already almost entirely guinea pig.”
“Relax, he was the first thing I checked when I woke,” Will said. “My guess is he’ll sleep through the entire storm.”
The man leaned back in his chair and stared at the cobweb littered ceiling. “Kids, truthfully—”
“Pleeeeeeeeaaase,” both siblings whined in unison.
“At your age—”
“Hey, what’s in the box?” Will asked and reached for the wooden coffer in the middle of the table.
“Don’t touch that!” the man cried, lunging for it. He stared at it intensely and thrust it into a draw beneath the table. When he looked back to his kids the look in his eyes terrified them, and they backed away from him. Compared to what he had said about the photo, whatever was in that box must have been genuinely frightening.
The fear in his children’s eyes was like a slap in the face, and the man’s expression softened. To his children it was like a switch had been flicked, his transformation from anger to sympathy causing them to instantly forget their alarm. From almost costing them the game, Will’s move had inadvertently put them in a position of checkmate. The boy recognised he had to act quickly to secure victory.
“Hold up,” he said, trotting over to some disused furniture stacked against the far wall. He grabbed an old rolled Persian rug that was leaning vertically against a group of out-dated barstools and half carried, half dragged it to where Novak kept his place, letting the rug roll out across the cold hardwood floor. The pair sat on it cross-legged and raised their chins to the storyteller, waiting for him to commence the highly anticipated tale.
The man glared at them for several disbelieving seconds and sighed. It was all his kids needed to realise he had conceded defeat. “Very well,” he said. He swivelled around to the window and returned his gaze to the stormy morning sky. “And no, I’m not turning around.” A second later the children thought they heard him whisper a curse word. Before they had a chance to wonder why, he returned to the desk, swiped up the Dictaphone, and with an impatient flourish was refacing the window.
For the second time that morning the man pressed the record button.
“It was after the rejection that we were compelled to leave. I remember it all clearly…”