LOVE, AND A STORM BY THE LAKE

The lake was black water, reflecting a blackening sky. Sara couldn’t believe anything might live in water so black, so cold. That lake was no place for anything alive. The surface was still and the whole thing was like lacquered ivory. Along the edges, ripples from little water spiders like the curly paths of ice skaters.

Sara looked up, away from the water, her eyes dry even in the humid, heavy air. An allergy to pollen was a threadlike anchor to the reality of her own life inside her. A storm front crept in above her. To her right lay the dead body of her lover, Justin. To her left, the thin gravel road that connected the gravel bank of the lake to the other thin gravel road that led to the thin paved road that led to the wide interstate. The road was empty of cars, of people, and like the lake, empty of any emotive, judgmental, fearful life at all.

The wind caressed her, warm and moist and full of promises for a hard rain. She sighed into it, letting her own breath wrap itself around her face. She looked down at Justin and tried to decide whether to smile or cry. His face was a puckered blank, paper left in a pocket and run through the wash. The hot wind rustled hair across his forehead, flipped his collar over, and hissed through the tall, flowering weeds.

The field of flowers stretched away on all sides of them. So many different colors, and Sara took some time to count them. Three shades of purple, two yellows, a slight pink mixed with orange, blue just like her mother’s eyes, garish magenta, forlorn indigo, and a stark hospital white. The wind teased at their petals and the sky grew darker. Sara closed her eyes, turned her face to the sky, and waited for the first drop.

They had come to the lake to make love on a Saturday afternoon designed by a just God for making love in the sun, among the flowers, at the side of a lake. Sara had no idea what caused Justin to die, and why he went so suddenly and so quietly. All the little movements of his body stopped. His face fell in, just a little, and he fell back. It seemed as if he’d known it was going to happen, had planned it, and intended to come back just as quickly and with no more explanation, and later they would get some ice cream. His face and his stillness didn’t tell her he was sorry, or that it was okay, or that he’d done it on purpose or if it was an accident.

Then the first raindrop made a soft sound like a lowercase p on the petal of a flower in front of her. The sound tickled her mind and she smiled and the rain came on. There was the loud hiss of the wind in the flowers like an overture, the entr’acte for the coming storm. The sound and the wall of air swept across the lake, scattering leaves and bees and the little water spiders and lifting Sara’s long straw hair into the heavy sky.

“That’s all right,” she whispered.

Her answer was the distant rumble of coarse thunder, a cascade of the little ps, and a sudden pinpoint wetness on her right cheek. Her face felt so hot just then, the raindrop so cool, she thought the drop would boil away. Maybe it did.

The movement of an ant scurrying across Justin’s still face caught her eye and she realized how much she loved him. With the storm coming in, it felt to Sara as if the world meant to wash him away, breaking him up like mildew between the tiles of the earth. He would be gone with the ending of the storm and she wanted to go with him, but knew she couldn’t. The rain would cleanse her of him, like it cleansed the ground. The flowers would grow back up from under him and she would forget. Maybe, next Saturday, she could come back with someone else.

She put her left hand to her mouth, a sudden realization almost making her giggle. She could trick the storm. It wouldn’t know she wouldn’t let him go all the way away. She spoke his name and the way he kissed her—the brush of hot, dry lips a little rough and a little soft, the tip of his tongue—into her hand. She said a poem of him to herself that had no real words, just the ideas behind them. She held the fragile breath lightly in her hand like a robin’s egg and put it in the pocket of her dampening dress. And though she knew the storm would never find it there, she couldn’t bear to keep it to herself.

She looked up again into the sky and as the rain fell harder she closed her eyes tight. She said the words and whispered the breath again to the sky. She told the storm about Justin, so even if it washed him away, it wouldn’t forget him. In her pocket, the first breath of the little poem felt warm against her leg.

 

—Philip Athans

 

P.S., I wrote this story about thirty-five years ago. Though I sent it around to a few magazines at the time, it has never been published. Any author of a certain age will have some number of these in a file somewhere. And heck, maybe a global pandemic will come along and inspire us to throw them out into the world, just because.

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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