when I wrote this story it wasn't, but it became the story of people I love, my own.
In thirty-seven years he hadn't found a way to tell his wife he was afraid. At first, it seemed right to hide his weaknesses from her. The years had taken that feeling and fused it into the nucleus of every cell in his body, every nerve flash in his mind, every twitch of his eyelashes. He guarded his pain like a jealous child. He hid in emotional corners, poured the energy of his fear into anger, and swiped sharpened talons at anyone who dared poke a careless finger into his cage.
Above all he feared death, the consumption of his being. He sat on the edge of the hard examining room bed, protected only by the thin hospital gown the nurse had thrown to him when he arrived. He faced the end of himself helpless and shivering in the cool antiseptic air.
The doctor entered the room without looking at him. She pulled a curtain around the bed to create an illusion of privacy and delivered the news of his condition dispassionately, as if giving him directions to a shopping mall. She gave him time to digest the information, asked him if he had any questions, and turned to leave. When she pulled aside the curtain, the uncertainty of the rest of the world behind it took him by surprise. A cold breeze stole his breath. A hole opened in his gut and he gulped air to try to fill it. They gave him some time alone in the examination room, scheduled tests, and sent him home.
He kept himself calm. To Connie, he was impassive. He refused to talk about the problem. She sat across the dinette table at breakfast and confronted him. She told him she was worried. He folded his newspaper and looked at her over the top of his glasses.
"I told you, there is absolutely nothing to worry about. Men have these problems. It's nothing," he said. Connie wrung her hands and poked her spoon at a half eaten bowl of cheerios and milk.
"I'm afraid, Les. You know how I am. What if something happens? What will I do?"
"Nothing is going to happen," he said, "did you put on the coffee? Can you fetch me a cup?"
He'd seen Connie train herself to stop and watch him turn his back. When she was younger, she would follow him. She would grab his head in her hands, stare into his eyes, and drag him out like a wrangler roping a reluctant calf. Two children and Les's distance had broken her. Now she seemed tired of running after him. She didn't come running anymore.
At the table the wind was building.
There was a storm in their past. A gray churning monster had left its claw marks in their backs. It stalked them from a distance. Connie ignored it. For her, survival had been a victory. The wounds in Les still bled.
When his defenses went down, Les remembered the storm. The weathermen had seen it coming for days. They flashed warnings across the evening TV shows.
"Shouldn't we do something?" Connie had asked, sitting beside him on the living room couch.
"What? You want to run away? Where will we go? We'll be fine right here," he answered. He glared at the "Special Bulletin" that interrupted the family TV hour. The news people were alarmists. They worried his family needlessly. He looked at his children lying on their stomachs in front of the TV, calm in the safety of their home. At least they would sleep soundly.
The beast took them by surprise in the night. The phosphor images on the television were a feeble approximation of god's wrath. The hurricane swung into their state, over their county, through the city center, and onto their street. The power failed. Horizontal rains blasted against the trees. The winds shook their tiny home and split beams in the walls.
The children screamed at the concussions of the exploding wood, the rage of the blaring winds. Connie ran to their bedroom and hid them under blankets. She buried them with her body. Their lives shrank to nothing in the hurricane's anger.
From the living room, Les watched the tree. Silhouetted against blue-white lightning bursts, the limbs bowed and snapped. The breath of the monster shredded the leaves from the branches. Les knew the huge oak would come down and crash through the house. He paced from window to window. He could see the dark bulge on the ground where the roots were losing hold. He would have to cut it down and push it clear before the wind drove it onto his home.
The noise of his rummaging brought Connie away from the children. She yelled at him as he emerged from the mud room with a hand saw.
"What are you doing? Where are you going? Are you crazy?"
He looked at her, took a breath and steadied his voice before he spoke. He said, "Go back to the boys. I have to do something."
The wind pulled the house's rear door out of his grasp and slammed it open. The wood cracked where the hinges barely held. The storm's strength took him by surprise. It knocked him down. He stood, defiant. Soaked by the warm rain he edged his way against the house in the stroboscopic lightning glare. When he reached the corner of the home, he took a step out of the house's wind-shadow into the teeth of the storm.
He fell and lost his grip on the saw. It blew out of sight. Looking up, he could see the tree leaning. He could hear its trunk splitting as it gave way to the strain. He smelled pungent sap and the musty bursting soil blown to spray in the gale as the roots gave way.
In the dark, there was only sound between the flashes: the wood tearing, branches splintering to sticks as they crushed into the ground. The huge oak pitched over him. He buried his head in his arms. He felt the impact on his legs.
He told the doctors he couldn't remember how he freed himself from the tree limb that crushed his calves and pinned him. He denied the hate that overtook him, the creature he had become to save his life.
But he did remember. It was always there. When he forgot to fight his memory he would remember the rage that took control. The reptilian terror pushed his mind aside and became him. He watched himself struggle. He heard himself wail as he pulled with his arms and dragged his legs from beneath the fallen tree trunk. He crawled back into his house on his knees. At the doorway he met Connie. He met the fear in her with the uncontrolled savagery that pulled him from the trap.
"Shut up," he shouted against the wind. He swung a fist at her. "Don't just stand there, you idiot. Get me some help. Get me something to wrap these legs."
She was still screaming when the pain took hold and he passed out.
As Les sat at the kitchen dinette he was sure he could hear the wind outside. He stared at his newspaper, the imprinted ink meaningless to him as he remembered the illiterate animal. He fought to keep the savage down with a swallow. He fought the it with lies.
Connie put a mug of coffee in front of him and he stared into it. He wondered what he would become. He wondered what he would do.
"It's nothing," he said into the coffee mug, "it's just a small problem. It's not ca..."
"I'm going with you," Connie said, her to him as she walked to the stove.
Les snapped his head up. "No you're not."
He had gone to the hospital alone. He checked himself in and faced the tests with all the bravado he could muster. When they finally came for him, he lay shivering under a single sheet tormented by pressure of his own heartbeat.
The orderly said, "It's only a test, sir. There's no need to worry."
"I'm not worried about the test," he replied.
They sedated him. When he woke Connie was sitting beside the bed. She sat straight in her chair with her hands clasped in her lap. As he opened his eyes, she touched his forehead and caressed his cheek.
"I'm okay," he told her. "It was only a test. Go home."
"Go home," Connie whispered to the coffee pot on the stove. She slammed her hand onto the kitchen counter. Les heard a crack, an explosion of wood. He closed his eyes and felt a mass rise over him.
She said, "I have a right. I have a right to know what's happening to you. I'm your wife." He could hear the wind howling through branches stripped bare. He saw the woman who met him screaming at the door.
"Why?" he said, his voice thin. "The test result...it's either good or bad. Everybody's got to die sometime."
"You are not going to do this to me again," she said. She ran to the bedroom to put on her street clothes.
Les vowed not to speak. He withdrew from the living world. He let her guide him to the passenger's side of the car, open the car door, and close it behind him. He watched the earth rotate under the vehicle as if it was a movie, a TV show he had begun to follow too late, one not worth getting involved with or he would reach the end with too many questions.
When they walked into the waiting room at the doctor's office he sat immediately and let Connie tell the receptionist he was there. He picked up a copy of a magazine. It was several months old. The cover was crumpled and worn. He wondered how many hands had touched the journal and what the fate had been of the people who had wrinkled the pages.
He flipped through pages seeing the words and pictures, understanding nothing. He thought Connie spoke to him once, but he had lost himself in the white spaces between the words of an article. He was adrift on a sea of white nothingness, the howling wind propelled him from nothing to nothing. He surfaced at Connie's touch.
He looked up and saw the nurse smiling, leaning through the partially opened door to the examining rooms.
At his side Connie said, "It's time, Les."
He stood, walked toward the nurse and felt miles of silence stretch between him and the woman he'd left sitting. He could see an ocean before him--an ocean void so large a million beaming souls couldn't light it. Loneliness towered over him. He felt hollow. He gasped for air to fill the space. He couldn't. He stopped walking. His heart pounded in his chest. Lightning tore upward through his spine. His muscles tensed in anticipation of escape. Impossible escape.
"Is there something wrong, Mr. Arthur?" the nurse asked.
He felt his feet root into the ground as the wind rose from over the void to tear him down. He opened his mouth to speak, but words would not come. He bowed his head to hide his face.
"Do you need help, Mr. Arthur?" the nurse said, taking a small step toward him.
He turned his shoulders, glanced backward, and with the last ounce of himself slowly opened a palm to plead with Connie in the calm of the world behind him. Would she see him in the middle of this?
He saw the woman on the chair dissolve. Connie's face, at first wrinkled and drawn tight, faded smooth and clear in the wind. Her eyes narrowed to slits over a smile that erupted across her lips. She strode across the waiting room floor toward him, tears streaming from the corners of her eyes.
Connie took his head in her hands and looked into his glistening eyes.
"So there you are," she said, her voice bright. "Where have you been all of these years, my love? I've been waiting for so long, I thought I had lost you forever. So much time has passed us by."
She slid an arm around his waist. Les leaned on her, expecting her to shift against his weight. When had she become so strong? She remained steady. He caught his breath. It had been decades since he'd cried. At first he hated himself for doing it. Hate faded with the tears and left him standing naked at four years old, clutching a towel, waiting for his turn into the bathroom.
He put his forehead against Connie's and closed his eyes. His chin shook as he fought to form the words with a rain filled whisper. How could he make up for all the years he'd shut himself away? His life had not been his own and he'd stolen it from her. Why would she forgive him now? He deserved death. But he'd spend every last moment trying to make it up to her.
"Please," he said. He swallowed. "What have I done? I'm so sorry."
She said, "Come. Walk with me," because she'd always known. She'd been waiting.
The nurse pushed the door wide and stood aside to let them pass. Connie led him to fight their storm.
The next old story is The name that lasted a million years
The first old story is The cheshire woman
The last old story is They're not fish, they're people