Chasing Storms

I’ve decided to dust off my older stories and recirculate them in the digital era.  This is another previously published piece that is new to the blog.  This one was originally published in Absolute in the summer of 2005 and it even won a writing award!

Chasing Storms

 

Once, a long time ago, I was truly happy.  For one short-lived afternoon my capsulated world was perfect and harmonized and I played as if there were no rules, no pain, and no memories to haunt me.  I was twelve, and it was the last time I felt human, the absolute last time I felt whole.

I grew up in a small town in southwestern Oklahoma with my Grandma Carol and her fourth husband, Ted.  I lived with my grandma then.  Ultimately I would live with many people over the course of my teenage years, but that year was spent in Grandma Carol’s bricked up trailer.  She was the kind of woman most people meet only briefly and then walk away wondering what was wrong with the picture.  The deep wrinkles, a head of gray hair, and an obvious set of false teeth made her look like she was over seventy, but she was actually closer to fifty that year.  Most of the confusion about her age probably stemmed from the fact that she’d gotten married at fourteen and had five children by four different men before she was twenty-eight.

However promiscuous her early years may have been, in her later years she’d decided to make herself seem like an upstanding citizen.  So she had Ted buy her the finest trailer and had bricked it up on the outside, adding a carport and a wooden fence to make it seem even more like a “real” home.  Then she’d gone to the best bargain furniture store in town and bought a whole living room set with a sofa, loveseat, recliner, and even an ottoman that we were never allowed to sit in lest our dirty rears wore out the seats cushions.  Every day I would clean that house, scrubbing it spotless for visitors who usually weren’t even allowed inside.

Grandma Carol was a living contradiction, a world of nicotine stains and bar fights wrapped in a bricked up trailer and tied together by a top of the line Cadillac.   It was hard to know what it was she really wanted, hard to know when life would be good enough that I could have her approval for even two seconds.

I would spend all morning scrubbing the wood paneled walls of the trailer, trying to remove the filmy tar coating that had become ingrained into every pore of my very existence with the false scent of lemon Pine-Sol.  By the time I got home from school she would have already smoked enough to give the walls another finish.  My life was tempered by her cigarettes.  I once saw her smoke four at once, and for awhile that made her like some type of superhero to me, able to conquer the evil side effects of smoking with nothing more than sheer determination.  A few years later, when I actually did the math on the number of cigarettes she smoked per day, I understood that by most doctor’s calculations Grandma Carol should have dropped dead over twenty years ago.

The best part of my young life that summer was my friend, Ellen, whose short, frizzy hair, dimpled cheeks and sprinkling of freckles covered her face so precisely it was as if they’d been placed there by fairies.  She looked like a dirty angel; untouched by the worries and pain that often clouded my world.

One afternoon we were outside in the playhouse Ted had made for me from the scraps of wood from some house he’d been contracted to help build.  It wasn’t much, just a plywood shell built over the back half of the tornado shelter, but Ellen and I could always manage to turn those four plain walls into a castle or a grand ballroom depending on the occasion.  I can’t be a hundred percent sure what we were doing on that day, but I think that we were taking turns putting on Grandma Carol’s make-up, pretending that we were finalists in the Miss America pageant.

Ellen came over a lot, and she didn’t seem to mind that my grandma was a little dysfunctional.  Sure she commented on it like most twelve year olds would, but it didn’t stop her from being my friend.  And that acceptance bought her a true friendship that no amount of ridicule in later years could break up.

This was before we thought of boys as anything more than friends.  Before sneaking cigarettes and beer became our favorite pastimes.  Before time and reality distorted the innocence in our lives as if it were nothing more than a station on the television that could be changed with the click of a button.  When I think back at my early childhood I see everything as a two-dimensional picture that has faded over the years, and for the most part it’s hard for me to accept that anything really even happened, that those defining moments were anything more than a dream I had a long time ago.

One thing I definitely remember about that day was that Grandma Carol had tucked herself into the storm cellar and was listening to Gary England’s weather reports.  She was smoking so much that a spiraling gray cloud could be seen wafting its way out the cellar vent as if she were a human chimney.

It was the middle of tornado season, and we were in the pressure cooker that is southwestern Oklahoma.  A place where the heat and rain can build up into a frenzied culmination of childhood fears and nails bitten down to the quick before the weather would suddenly Snap! releasing everything in one giant whoosh of storms that left the charged air smelling sharply of ozone, only for it to build back up again within a matter of days, sometimes only hours.  Storms were the one thing that Grandma Carol was actually terrified of, and she would refuse to emerge from the storm shelter until the all clear had been given by Gary England and the Tornado Watch had been lifted.

She had been down there six hours before we heard anything.  Ellen and I had taken bets as to how long she could remain down there without needing to go the bathroom, and so far she’d held out longer than either of us had expected.  She knew that May was the culmination of tornado season.  A time of year when any normal, bright sunny day can turn into a nightmare in under thirty minutes and the heat and humidity can be as real as a fleece blanket pressing over every inch of your skin.

Just as we were beginning to believe she had turned herself into a shelter hermit for no reason, Grandma Carol’s shrill voice rang through the thick air, warning that there was a tornado headed right for us.  Ellen and I looked at each other, the excitement lighting up our faces like they were Christmas trees.  We’d never actually seen a tornado.

“Marie!  Ellen! You’d better get down here right now.  I’m shutting the doors in thirty seconds.”  I can still hear her voice calling to us from that cement dungeon, but we never made it in.  I took Ellen’s hand in mine and ran to the front of the house, determined to see a real tornado, to look that god-driven fear in the face and say that I was not afraid.

In fact, I felt liberated for the first time in my life, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt as free as I did when we rounded the gravel driveway and saw the thin spindle touch the ground.  Now I know it couldn’t have been more than an F1 tornado, but then it was a giant, the most beautiful and majestic thing I’d ever seen.  It seemed far enough away that we felt safe even when we shouldn’t have.  The wind seemed to have sprung out of nowhere, as if there were a volcano of hot, pulsating air just beneath us.  It circled around us, pulling at our hair and whipping it around our faces, punishing us by turning our hair into a cat-o-nine-tails.

Despite everything we didn’t hesitate for more than a second before we began running through the field, climbing the low-riding fence and burrowing through the wheat towards that storm, sweaty palm touching sweaty palm the entire time, binding us to each other permanently.

I’ve never been able to remember what happened when we crossed that threshold and stood in the embrace of Mother Nature.  Nothing’s ever brought those lost minutes back, and now I’m not sure I want them.  They found us a few hours after the tornado, huddled together and half-buried by uprooted plants and debris.  They took pictures when they found us, the earth beneath our two curled and interconnected bodies the only area of ground not touched by the tornado.  Our trailer had even been partially mangled by the force of the wind, and my playhouse was nothing more than another memory, but our clothes hadn’t even been torn, and not a single cut or bruise graced our bodies.  Grandma Carol proclaimed it a miracle and pronounced me terminally stupid at the same time.

The next year I was traded back to my mother in Maine, and the year after that I went to my father’s house with his new wife and three new kids in Arkansas, and the whole time I was gone I missed the embrace of the wind as if there was a vacancy in my body that I couldn’t fill no matter how many times I tried.   Eventually, I found my way back to Grandma Carol’s.  When I went back to school I found that Ellen, my dirty angel, was halfway to being a harbinger of hell.  Her face was pocked and half-eaten by her meth addiction, the careful dusting of fairy freckles transformed into symptoms of a horribly ravaging disease.  The cuts and scrapes of her tormented soul sewn clearly across her flesh with interconnecting lines and marks that showed more of her insecurity than she ever realized.  I think now that she must have missed the wind too.

Within six months of my return I found myself one of the few people attending her funeral.  I could still feel her sweaty palm pushing into mine.  The hollow roar of the wind filled my ears where the preacher’s words should have been.  The wind was with me for the first time in four years, comforting me through Ellen’s death the same way it is comforting me now.  The same hollow roar is pulsating through my ears.  The unsubstantial weight of the wind cocoons me, just like it did both of us back then.

In the movies, the people standing on a ledge about to kill themselves always draw such a crowd.  That’s not true in real life.  In fact, the only thing that seems to notice my presence is the wind.  It’s been cushioning me, cradling me, and yes, even beckoning me for the last hour or so as I’ve remained here, a living gargoyle on the urban skyline, watching the people below me move across the sidewalk in meaningless patterns; nothing more than simple drones.

I stand up on the ledge and close my eyes, letting the wind work its way into my veins like a junkie begging for that last hit.  There are still no cries from those below.  No warning shouts or screams of horror to acknowledge my existence.  There is nothing, just the wind rushing past my body, the roar in my ears, a small sweaty palm encased within my own, and the weightlessness of worries floating through thirty stories of air….

Cataloging Creation

This is an older story that was originally published in Nonzine in 2006.  However, since I have nothing new at the moment I wanted to share it with you!  Enjoy!

Cataloging Creation

She moved towards him, carefully pacing herself so her anger didn’t get away from her.  Auburn ringlets framed her heart-shaped face and enhanced her large spring green almond eyes.  As with all gods, her beauty was so perfect and so visceral that it hypnotized any mortal who happened to look directly on her.  Right now, however, it was her son that was the focus of all her attention.  She slid her hand under his chin and pulled his face to hers.

His face looked like little more than a dollop of lumpy clay with two dark and deeply set eyes, a small hump for a nose, and a crude slash for a mouth.  It had not refined its features yet, had not decided exactly how it would turn out.  At this point in a young god’s life, their personality would be the final say in what kind of beauty they would end up with.  Though, if she had to say right now, Riza was afraid that Nokth’s face would end up being perhaps the most horrible of all those to ever grace the upper realm.

Snot bubbles moved out from the holes where his nose was supposed to be and around his thin mouth, briefly mingling with his tears before being wiped off his knobby cheeks with the back of a grubby hand.  She shuddered with mild repulsion before she could get a hold of herself.  Her son was not supposed to act this way.  He had been sculpted from the very beginnings of all gods, the clay of creation on the banks of the high river by her loving hands and using her own hair to bind him together and her own blood to give him life.  No matter how many times she reminded herself of that fact it didn’t alter the behavior he’d displayed since his resurrection yesterday.  By now most god children were halfway to learning how to blend and mold the wonders of the universe for their subject’s enjoyment.  But Nokth couldn’t even seem to learn the simplest part of their work: watching.

Riza was the guardian of all creations.  What other gods created from either carelessness or as by-products of their own frivolity she guarded as precious celebrations of life.  It was her job to tend to the unwanted, but even so her patience was being sorely tested.

“Calm down and remember what I told you about the carelessness of a god’s tears.  You wouldn’t want to cause life or death somewhere when you weren’t paying attention, would you?”  She asked, her voice while crystal clear and flawlessly human sounding still made everyone who heard it remember the most perfect day in their lives.  Right now, however, she was using all her energy to reign in her emotions and convince herself that this limbo was only temporary and that by tomorrow, everything should be stabilized.

Nokth looked at her for a moment, his near black eyes clouding with confusion before stubbornly shaking his head back and forth.

“Good, then quit crying and explain your problem.”

He opened his mouth and then clamped it shut as if he were a fish struggling for air.  She let go of his chin and looked at him from her full height, her hands on her hips as she waited.  While Riza’s voice was a soft and beautiful perfection and brought to mind the same clear spring day that was reflected in her eyes, his voice sounded like broken shards of glass scratching against metal, and again, Riza winced.

“I not want to watch.  Watching is silly.  I want to make things.”

“You can’t make anything because we’re not makers.  You have to learn what I do so that in the future you can help keep track of everything.  I know it’s not a glorious job, but it’s our duty as guardians to keep all of the information in order and catalog everything in the universe.  It’s a hard job, and that’s why I created you, so you could help me.”

Nokth put his head down once again and said nothing.  Believing that the foolishness was through, Riza turned back to her clipboard, walking ahead of him to begin the next round of cataloging.  She would never understand why the creators kept on churning out more and more creations every day when they knew that she would never be able to keep up with all of the items in the universe as it was now.

Looking ahead of her, Riza noticed palate after palate of cushioned items.  Some were nothing more than blades of a new type of grass or tiny replicas of a new species of animal.  But every now and then she would come across an orb no bigger than a marble that had been set on a pedestal and put aside for her to carefully examine.  An entire new world to put in her lists before she plucked it from its resting place and set it somewhere among the other stars and creations.  These were her favorite things to do, even though it meant more work, because these small, new worlds were always full of real, live interacting beings that hurt, cried, loved, and laughed.

In truth, a part of her could understand Nokth’s desire to create.  She had also wanted to be a creator, to see new flowers and grasses as they grew up under your feet as you walked or more involved beings when they first came from your eyes as you slept.  What a joy it would be to wake up in the morning and find a small animal that you had dreamed up and created resting on your pillow next to you, your imagination now a gateway to reality.  But over time she had come to realize that her job was almost as good as theirs because she at least got to study and observe what they had created, while for them the process of actually giving birth to new life forms was somewhat tedious and not often an altogether pleasant experience, if she understood correctly.  She hoped that Nokth would see things that way to.

Looking over her shoulder, she realized that she could no longer see him and she took a few steps back to see where he’d gone.  It didn’t take her long to spot him.  In fact, there were not many places you could go in the warehouse behind her, for whenever she finished cataloguing a new item, she placed it where it belonged, and the pedestal it had been on vanished, leaving only those items in front of her.

Nokth was standing over a small glass pedestal that held an orb even smaller than a marble and was surrounded by a special glass that allowed Riza to see everything on that tiny surface and even some stuff below.  It was the smallest world ever created, and even though she had cataloged most of the things from its planet, she had not placed it where it belonged yet.  This was partly because she couldn’t seem to find the perfect atmosphere for it and partly because she was so enamored with it.  In her opinion, it was possibly the greatest item ever created.  And that wasn’t just because it was small, either, but also because everything living within that sphere went together in complete harmony.  There had not been a single conflict between inhabitants the entire time she’d been cataloging it, which was an incredible first for her.

“What are you looking at?”  She asked gently as she leaned down behind him, happy to take the opportunity to support any faint trace he had of learning her trade.  It had taken a lot for her to convince the other gods that she was ready to create a god child to train and work with, and so far she had been worried that at his week review the other gods would smugly assure her that she had not created a higher being and force her to unmake him.

“It’s so pretty.  So perfect.”  The edge was removed from his rough voice by pure awe as he watched the inhabitants of the planet move around without even being aware of his presence.  Without stopping to think about what he was doing, Nokth reached up with an extended forefinger as if he were going to try and push the tiny ball around on its cushioned setting.

Riza quickly snatched his arm back and looked at him sharply, her beautiful face flush with anger and impatience.  “Do not try to touch that, you could unmake everything for them.”  She said, barely able to keep her voice below a scream.

Nokth turned and looked at her, his crude face turned into a scowl.  “But I want, I want, I want….” He said as he tried to pull free of her and began stomping his feet and throwing a holy temper tantrum.  Riza had never seen a superior being behave this way and was unsure of what to do.  So she immediately let go of his arm, afraid that any struggle would harm a number of creations around them, but she wasn’t soon enough.

As she was loosening her grip, he was pulling back with such force that his arm continued to move through the air until it struck the glass pedestal and caused it to sway erratically on its base before completely falling over and shattering.  The world went with it, tumbling end over end until it fell to the floor and smashed into a thousand glittering pieces.

Riza clamped her hands to her ears as the horrified screams of the entire population poured through her head.  She heard that cry every time a species went extinct, and it was ten times worse now with the death of a whole planet.  The only other time she’d ever felt anything comparable was when some careless god had thrown a pebble and it had landed on that planet full of giant lizards, but that had been nothing compared to this.  The death of the only perfect society rang through her head until she was unable to control her tears anymore.  She removed her hands from her ears and held them under her eyes, careful to catch every drop so that no other careless incidents occurred.

When her eyes dried up after they had cried ten drops each, she looked to Nokth, holding her pain in front of her in liquid pools of glimmering fire.  He had matured into a young man and his face had finally taken shape.  It’s rough edges, meticulously carved prominent cheekbones, brooding eyes, and black hair were so different from her own features that she immediately knew what he was going to be—one of the mysterious outsiders.  Guardianship had passed him by and the title of destructor had been handed down instead.  Even though he was no longer technically in her care, she felt it her responsibility to teach him one final lesson.

Transferring the tears to one hand she reached out and tilted his chin back again.  “This is so you never forget what goes with a god’s carelessness.”  She reached above his head with the tears and let them fall into his muddy, chocolate eyes.  As the tears entered his exposed lenses they soaked into the iris, changing them from a dark brown to a beautiful yet violent shade of red, not quite dark enough to be maroon but not light enough to be crimson.  He called out in pain, but it did no good.  His eyes had already been filled up with only ten tears each.

He shook his head and looked at her through eyes of infinite sadness.  Nothing would remove the haze of pain and loneliness that covered everything.  None of the creations held the beauty and importance they had only moments before, and every sound he heard was tinged with the echoes of a million voices reaching out to him in pain.  He started to say something, to beg her to take it all back, but a door appeared beside him.  The carving on its massive walnut surface showed a great man, handsome but dangerous, walking down a solitary road holding only an axe.

“That’s your door.”  She said as it opened and pulled him through before disappearing again.  Riza then picked up her clipboard and returned to her tasks.  There were a million more creations to be put into the register, and she did not have time for useless good-byes.  He had chosen his path, and she had given him her pain so that he would only view the universe through images of pain and sadness, and so that he could never take comfort or joy in the job of destruction, never take anything from it but guilt.  She looked up at the unending warehouse in front of her and the emptiness behind her, sighed, and walked over to the nearest specimen.  It was an elegant purple flower with drooping petals ringed in gold.  It would have been so much nicer if she’d just had someone else to share it with, and she wondered how long it would be before the other gods let her try her hand at building another helper.  This time she would try to make it a daughter.