Warmth on her face and sunbeams sneaking between her eyelashes awakened Carla. High summer, but still cool enough at night to leave the windows wide open, the cool breeze brought the roisterous songs of the sparrows, starlings and crows into her bedroom to assault her ears. She had slept through the more melodious strains of the dawn chorus, and the cacophony from the honeysuckle bush just beyond the open window told her it was well past sunrise, at least seven or seven-thirty. Yawning, stretching and shifting her head out of the direct sunlight, Carly opened her eyes to a silken blue sky embellished by a few lacy clouds. She felt the needle jab assault her left knee and despite the sunshine and clear heavens, she muttered under her breath, “storm’s comin’.”
All through the morning, as she tended to household chores, the needle jabs in her knee became more frequent until finally settling into a constant, dull ache. Wincing, she paused to assess the pain level. Annoying, but not so bad she would bother with a dose of ibuprofen. The pain had been a familiar companion over the last five decades. She had fractured her kneecap in a fall on the ice when she was eight, and although the bone had knit, arthritis had set in not long afterwards.
By midafternoon, Carla was ready to gather in the laundry hanging on the line in her back yard. Overhead, the sky was now a milky blue and the sun a hazy, creamy yellow circle she could observe directly. To the west, the gunmetal gray heads of thunderclouds were just visible over the horizon. While barely visible to her, Carly knew that those pillars of vapor stretched a good twenty to thirty thousand feet earthwards. The very tops of the boxwood trees were rippling in the western breeze, although at ground level the air was still. Distant thunder rumbled, barely distinguishable from the low hum of the constant traffic on the highway two miles away. Aside from the mourning doves, the birds had gone silent, nature holding its breath for the onslaught to come.
Carla took her time unpegging the pillowcases, sheets and towels from the line, folding them as she took them down to place in the laundry basket. She knew she had a good half-hour before the rain. The ache in her knee ratcheted up a notch as she bent to pick up the full basket. Now the wind chimes were answering to the strengthening breeze, so she scurried indoors to deposit the laundry, then back out to stand on the wide porch at the front of her house that faced the west. She sniffed the air. Petrichor. What a wonderful word to describe the scent of the earth before rain. By now, the nimbostratus clouds reached to the zenith and the temperature had plunged a good fifteen degrees. Even the day lilies bent before the onrush of chill wind. Carly could see cloud-to-cloud flashes of lightning and the noise of the thunderclaps obliterated the sound of the distant traffic. It was going to be one monster of a storm. She stood on the porch as the darkness grew. The wind increased to howling intensity as the temperature continued to plummet. Spruce trees lining the edge of her property waved wildly and the saplings that lined the long drive bent almost double. The house behind her shuddered as lightning struck the cell tower down the road, sending up a shower of sparks as the thunder followed instantaneously. Visibility dimmed to just a few feet as the skies opened and curtains of rain pummeled the earth. When fat, icy drops began to reach into the recesses of the porch, chilling Carla to the bone, she finally went indoors.
Indoors was twilight. Carla flipped a switch and light flooded the living room. She hurried to close all the west-facing windows, barring the rain’s entrance into the house. Gusts rattled the rain gutters and the patter of hail drummed the roof. Yes, the storm was living up to its introduction. To take off the chill, Carla started a small fire in the Franklin stove that stood against the north wall. Then the lights flickered and went out. But Carla was prepared and lit two oil lamps. She could cook her supper on the Franklin and if the power was still off in the morning, she would start the generator in the shed. Even as the wild weather wrapped itself around her home, Carla wasn’t worried. The house had withstood worse in the century since it had been built.
When the laundry had been put away, Carla opened a can of soup and set the pot on the stove to heat. There would be no television tonight, nor any internet. A glance at her phone showed no bars; not surprising considering the lightning strike to the cell tower. Carla retrieved her crochet hook and continued to work on a layette for an expected grand-niece. A few hours later, she was ready for bed. The violent phase of the storm had passed yet the rain still beat a steady tattoo. The throbbing in her knee had eased, but just as it had foretold the summer storm, something in her spirit was uneasy. She read from Psalms by lamplight and though the words brought her comfort, two thoughts would not go away. “Storm’s comin’,” and “Call Patrick”. Well, time enough for that in the morning.
An inarticulate scream shredded Patrick’s vocal cords, propelling him from the depths of sleep into a befuddled wakefulness. He found himself sitting upright, panting and sweating profusely. Not a good way to start a morning. The sky outside his penthouse window was just beginning to take on the faint glow of the false dawn. He tried to probe the depths of his sleep deprived mind for the source of the terror that had seized him but could pin down nothing but a vague sense of unease.
Night terrors were nothing new to Patrick. He’d suffered with them from his earliest years, but there were two different kinds of dreams that haunted his nights. The commonplace nightmares placed him in some form of danger, suffusing him with a feeling in unavoidable doom. Wakefulness always arrived just before his ultimate dreamland demise, and while his heart pounded wildly, a few deep breaths would dispel the phantoms. As he matured, these dreams, while still common enough, lost their power to shake him. Patrick had simply become accustomed to them and knew that they brought no real harm.
It was the other dream, while rare, that still had the power to leave him disoriented for days. In it, he found himself reluctantly creeping down the steep ship-ladder stairs to the poorly-lit basement of his childhood. Chanting to himself, “Don’t go into the coal cellar, don’t go into the coal cellar, don’t go into the coal cellar,” he gripped the shaky pipe that served as a handrail and slowly descended the steps. Yet at the bottom, he would find his hand irresistibly drawn to the latch on the rough-hewn door to his right that led into the coal cellar. He lifted the latch, opened the door and peered inside the empty bin where all was black, stained from decades of accumulated coal dust, save for the pale grey rectangle of a window high up on the wall. Telling himself, “No, no, no, no,” he would walk into the tiny room and as he did, the door would slam shut behind him. Turning to pound on the unyielding door, he would hear a rusty creak behind him as the window opened and a coal chute began to pour lumps of shiny black coal into the room. His nose and throat stung from the odor of bitumen as the level of crept up his to his ankles, then knees and then chest, immobilizing him and compressing his rib cage until he was gasping for breath. Just before the coal closed over his head, he would find himself snatched away to visions that he could never quite remember but left him shaking in dread.
Yet it wasn’t just the nightmare that caused him the greatest terror. Rather it was what happened in the week following his trip to the coal cellar. In childhood, he had not made the connection that when he had this dream, tragedy ensued. But by the time he was in his middle teens, he had learned to fear this nightmare with good reason. In the two decades since then, the dream had only occurred three times, each preceding the loss of someone dear to him.
This morning’s nightmare was one of the rare ones. Patrick realized that any further attempts at sleep were futile, so he got up and started a pot of coffee. He popped a breakfast entrée into the microwave. He slipped into a robe then took his coffee and breakfast with him out onto his terrace. The pre-dawn air, ten stories above the city streets, was chill. Patrick cradled the mug of steaming coffee in his hands and leaned back on the chaise lounge. Closing his eyes, he began to gasp as he felt the weight pinning him to the coal bin wall, crushing the air out of him. Fighting the urge to run back into his condo and turn on the television, the radio and every single light, Patrick continued to keep his eyes closed, waiting until that moment when he would be whisked out of the coal cellar into the vision he dreaded. He shuddered as abstract shapes, black against a blood red background, interspersed with jagged orange streaks played across the inside of his eyelids. No true forms, no words, no explanations…just an overwhelming feeling of dread. He muttered under his breath, “storm’s comin’.” With those words, the vision left him. In its place was one, single, overarching thought: “Go see Aunt Carla.”
If any good had come out of the corona virus panic and the riots that marred the late spring, it had been the transition for Patrick to work from home. He still made weekly trips to his office, but projects and meetings were now handled online and through Zoom. Patrick booted up his computer but had barely gotten started when his phone rang. Aunt Carla. He shuddered as he answered the phone and silently prayed that the omen of his nightmare did not presage tragedy to his favorite aunt.
“Good morning, Patrick.” Was it his imagination or did Aunt Carla’s voice sound strained? “I hope the day has been going well for you, but I suspect you have had a less than peaceful night.” How did she know? “I know I sound like a senile old woman, but I needed to check in on you. Is everything okay?”
Patrick cleared his throat. “As a matter of fact, Aunt Carla, everything is not okay. I’m worried about you.”
“Me? Oh, heavens, boy. There’s nothin’ the matter with me that takin’ thirty years off my age wouldn’t fix. We had quite the storm up here last night. Took out the cell tower by the house, but you know me, I still have the landline. But there was just somethin’ about that storm that left me uneasy in my spirit and I needed to know if you were alright.”
“I was about to call you as soon as I finished up this project. I was thinking about driving up to see you tomorrow. That is, if you’ll have me.”
“If I’ll have you! You know you are welcome here any time. But what about your job?”
“One, I’m working from home these days, so as long as I have Wi-Fi, I can work anywhere. And two, I have three weeks of vacation to use up before the end of the year. So, tomorrow is good?”
“I’m looking forward to it. We’ll talk then.” Carla closed the connection.
The worst part of the drive north was at the start. Patrick carefully navigated through neighborhoods that still bore the signs of looting and fire. He was even stopped at a National Guard checkpoint before he made it onto the Kennedy Expressway. Once over the Wisconsin border, he felt a surge of relief. I-94 through Milwaukee wasn’t exactly scenic, but from the highway, at least, that city didn’t seem to have as much damage as Chicago. Patrick stopped for lunch in Oshkosh, then swung west on Highway 10 to pick up I-39. He was making good time until he left the interstate north of Wausau. From there, the two-lane Highway 52 took many twists and turns as it passed through small towns and villages, slowing him down until he fina!my reached Wabeno.
The long driveway up to Aunt Carla’s house was clear, but the branch strewn lawn bore witness to the storm two days ago. He was barely out of the car when his aunt came to meet him with a hug and a kiss. “You’re just in time for supper.”
There was something peaceful about the century old farmhouse and the unchanged décor within Carla’s home, yet at the same time, Patrick felt a tension in his aunt and realized that he felt the same tension within himself. He was about to mention it and ask if she felt it too, when Carla said, “Not now. It will spoil supper. There’s plenty of time later.”
Supper was homecoming. A tender pot roast, fried potatoes, buttered green beans, and a salad fresh from Carla’s garden. And to top it off, homemade blueberry pie with ice cream. After the dinner dishes were washed and stacked in the drainer by the sink, they settled into comfortable rocking chairs on the porch. Carla lit several citronella candles to ward off the mosquitoes. “Now,” she said, “tell me what brought you here.”
Patrick told his aunt about his dreams. She was one of the very few people who knew about them, and the only one who took them seriously. “I don’t claim to be a prophet, but I’ve had enough experience with this dream to be concerned, and the first person who came to mind was you. I don’t want anything to happen to you. I need you. What really scares me is that the dream came now. I would have understood it if it had come in January or February before the virus hit, or even in May before the protests and riots. If a bad omen was going to manifest, surely it should have been then. So, why now?”
Carla nodded her head and rocked in silence for several long moments. “There’s a storm comin’, Patrick. I feel it with everything inside of me. These past seven months, terrible as they have been, are just the birth pangs. Now you know I’m not one to go about settin’ dates and times. I’ve seen plenty of those types of “prophets” come and go in my day. But we are warned to observe the signs and the times.” Here, she stopped and picked up the worn Bible from a side table. She read, “And I saw in the right hand of Him who sat on the throne a book written inside and on the back, sealed up with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the book and to break its seals?’ And no one in heaven , or on the earth, or under the earth, was able to open the book, or to look into it…And I saw between the throne and the elders a Lamb standing, as if slain, having seven horns and seven eyes which are the seven Spirits of God, sent out into all the earth. And He came, and He took the book out of the right hand of Him who sat on the throne. And when He had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, having each one a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy art Thou to take the book, and to break its seals; for Thou wast slain, and didst purchase from God with Thy blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” Carla closed the Bible.
“Storm’s comin’ Patrick. Are we ready?”