1750 words (7 minute read)

The Storm


The word amused him as a child. Whenever Mrs. Henderson would assure Vincent’s father that she was making the coffee as fast as she could, he and Theo would chuckle. They heard the impatience in Mrs. Henderson’s voice as she sounded out the word.

“Mr. Rhodes, you’ll get your first cup after it’s had the chance to purr-ko-laate!”

That’s all he could think of, twisted on his side, clutching on strands of wet grass. The description fit the sound: whatever he heard mimicked coffee on the stove.

He opened his eyes.

Splotches of color ran together, shapes swayed and bobbed. Raindrops pelted his face. A woman shouted. A man shouted back.

“—scared the devil out of me!”

“Come behind a man and—”

“—no right to be on my land!”

“Wasn’t aiming the damn thing at you!”

She uttered his name. He recognized the voice. She kept repeating Mr. RhodesMr. Rhodes….

An ice-cold hand rested on his forehead, and smelled of something earthy. A vegetable. Pumpkin, or turnip.

“Luckily he’s coming around.” Irritation and contempt peppered her voice.

“Ah, Christ,” Esson said. “Knocked him silly is all. Nothing more than a twig.” He walked over and picked up a small branch. He flung it down the hill. “You screaming like a fool banshee is what spooked the bejesus out of me. I thought you was being attacked by—”

“You and your imagination. I think anyone would scream with a gun aimed at their face. Now you just hush up. You’ve caused enough trouble.”

Vincent lifted his head. The raindrops soothed him; their moist coolness eased the pounding, the aching. Helen slowly came into focus. A tall man, in a loose-fitting black coat and fur-lined hat, stood behind her.

“You’re still with us, Mr. Rhodes,” she said, patting his shoulder.

The man pulled off his hat and scratched the back of his head. Water streamed down his face. “Thought you was whoever’s been running around up here.”

“Enough.” She thrust her palm in the air. “It’s bad enough you’ve scared the children half out of their senses with your behavior.”

“They need to be scared.”

Vincent sat up. A wave of nausea came over him. He didn’t dare try to stand.

“Squirrel, deer, or will o’ the wisp, we’ve talked before about you firing that gun so near my property.”

“Fired from my side.”

She huffed. “Ten feet makes hardly a difference.” She raised her voice to be heard over the rumble of thunder. “If this keeps up, I’ll fetch the sheriff.”

Esson laughed. “That’ll give me a good month head start then, won’t it? By the time that good-for-nothing slides his fat keister out of his chair, the apples’ll be in blossom.”

“I said hush!”

Vincent’s anger rose. How dare the man stand around hurling insults, with not so much a word of concern?

“I never found almost killing someone to be especially funny,” Vincent said.

“Overstating things a bit, stranger. You the kind of sissy that cries murder if he gets shoved?”

“And what do you call a man who fires a gun at unarmed people?” Vincent countered.

“Can’t you see this here’s a peacock gun? Good for turkeys, too.” His lips curled into a mocking smile. “Besides, I flung a twig is all. Heard Helen scream, saw you, put two and two together. But according to her, I come up with five.”

“Enough. Leave us alone,” Helen said, waving Esson away. “Go kill oaks on your own land.”

Esson opened his mouth, but thought better of speaking. He scrutinized Vincent for several seconds. Then, without a word, he turned his back, pushed his hat forward, and headed up the hillside.

“Who the hell is that man?” Vincent mustered enough strength, and his stomach felt calm enough, to sit up on his knees. “Dangerous, if you ask me.”

“Oh, Geoffrey Esson is all bluster. A grandstander with not much to show for it.” She watched him disappear over the hill. “I can’t say throwing a branch at someone isn’t softheaded, but to his credit I do believe he thought I was in distress.”

“I can think of better ways to deal with distress than blasting away trees.”

A gust of wind shifted the direction of the raindrops.

“The poor man’s still a little touched from the war.” She glanced up at the sky, and blinked furiously as the drops struck her face. “The storm’s getting worse.” She pointed to the shelter. “I don’t know about you, Mr. Rhodes, but I don’t much fancy staying out in this rain.”

She helped him up. After the world stopped spinning, he was able to take a few steps forward.

As small as the shelter was, they maneuvered around one another and managed to sit without straining their limbs to the point of torture.

Vincent held the satchel on his lap, the top crumpling slightly as he leaned forward. He undid the buckles and slid out a small sketchbook.

Helen watched him silently.

“You still owe me an answer,” she said, after he closed the satchel.

He studied her face: the cheekbones high and tight, her small rounded nose, thin lips.

“Not many people have reason to be on my land.”

He focused on a light below, near what he believed to be the furniture factory at the edge of the village. He’d lost count the number of times he’d read his brother’s description of that factory, now a dead building thanks to the Crash. Another light came on a few blocks away, but most of the buildings remained hidden beneath the cloak of the storm. The village that took up three hand-written pages of Theo’s letters sat a thousand feet below him, no doubt in his mind.

“Since the Crash, I’ve been taking work where I can find it,” he said, after a minute. The safest answer, and truthful enough. Though he knew he searched for more than work. Much more. “I stopped short of Boston when my train money ran dry. I found two days’ work in Claremont, and walked from there.”

“That’s a good day’s journey,” she said.

He thought again about his brother’s letters, the passage about lying in a field, high above a small town, listening to the tranquil flow of a waterfall near an old compound of some kind.

This place, the first I can recall in so long that I’ve felt unwatched, not pursued, hunted…the entire world unreal here, a depiction like those warped photographs of Grandfather’s village….

Forwarded from the family’s old Manhattan address to his Brooklyn flat, the envelopes bore the postmark 24th April 1933, Claremont N.H. Yet, in Theo’s unmistakable hand, the letters were dated 1918. The year he’d gone missing, as their mother phrased it. Would he tell Helen any of this? Given Claremont’s proximity, might she know something? Then again, he had yet to determine she wasn’t simply like him: drifting from town to town. Had he any proof he deserved to be called a trespasser? On her land?

“Are you an artist?” She tapped the edge of the sketchbook. Rain had fallen on his sketch of the village, near completion before Geoffrey Esson’s shooting spree.

“More of a hobby.” He shrugged. “Although I did sell a painting a while ago. To an insurance firm, in New York. Not exactly the gnat’s whistle, but it gave me enough to get by for a couple weeks.”

Helen leaned closer and studied the work. “That’s Elm Street in the middle. I can tell by the church.”

Wind howled past the shelter, and to the west thunder rumbled like timpani, low at first, reaching a crescendo with a cascading flurry of rhythm as though each rumble spilled over the other for dominance. As Vincent tried to wipe the paper dry with his sleeve he said, “I hoped it would turn out better than this.” He focused on his rendition of the factory. The windows, spared from raindrops, needed work.

“It’s pleasantly distorted.” She crossed her arms, as if to shield herself from a sudden chill. “I often come up here—to this exact spot—to look at the village. Usually at night. It seems so much prettier at night.”

A brilliant streak of lightning blazed across the hillside. A clap of thunder followed, so overwhelming it sounded like cannon fire.

“Mr. Rhodes, I—we’ve just met, I realize, and I’m not usually in the habit of inviting strangers to my home on the spur of the moment,” she said, turning away from the wind. “But I live just over the hill. You’re welcome to wait out the storm there. It will be more comfortable than this.”

A kind offer, to be sure, but he felt somehow he was veering off course. “I appreciate that. But—” He hesitated. “I’m looking for something. Maybe you can help. As near as I can tell, it’s an old resort of some kind.”

Helen looked up. “A resort?” She bit her lip, and the color in her face, what little there was, seemed to disappear altogether. “Do you mean the Sulphur Cure?”

“I’m not sure. Is that what the resort is called? What is it exactly?”

Helen looked out past the shelter. She traced her cheek with the tip of her finger.

“Were it up to me,” she said softly, “nothing but a pile of rubble would be left of it.”

The force of the wind grew stronger.

“Wasted thought, though, for I know nothing short of the Apocalypse will bring down those walls. But it’s certainly something that should have been destroyed years ago.”

She turned to face him, with an air of admonishment—head held high, shoulders back—as if she were about to caution a child who dallied too close edge of a stormy sea. “If your intention was to walk its corridors, you’d best think twice about it.”

A warning that echoed the old man’s. Only it didn’t seem Helen had uttered it for the mere purpose of finding amusement in Vincent’s reaction.

Such a warning served only to pique his curiosity.

And heighten his sense of dread.

Next Chapter: The Cottage