01 Apr The Storm of Tears
“The Storm of Tears”Written by Wentz Hesselman Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 16 minutes
First, Grant Bateman found out that he had lost his job. He showed up to work and was told to clear out his desk.
When he got home, he found his wife in a flurry of activity that looked a lot like packing her things. She told him that she was pregnant. She also told him that she was leaving that day to move in with the father.
Grant didn’t remember much after that. He recalled seeing double and staggering his way to the bedroom as the front door of the house slammed shut with a note of finality.
He collapsed onto the bed, partially made it underneath the covers and plummeted into sleep. He awoke several times, unsure if it had been hours or days. A few times, he had one of those half-dreams about being late to work. Then he’d remembered that he didn’t have a job to be late to, and he’d dozed off again.
His childhood eventually bled through, and he found dreams about being back at home. There was the iron shadow that was his father. He never really dreamed about his mother. The more the years wore on, the more she was just a face that flashed across his mind. In his dreams, she was little more than an unoccupied mask. A hole in the sand of his psyche that filled with water at high tide.
There was the inevitable moment when he woke up and he couldn’t get back to sleep, caught between a full bladder and bowels at critical capacity.
The trip to the bathroom felt like a mountain hike. He shivered like he was spiking a fever. He fell onto the toilet, and he thought about Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves riding their barrels down the river as he let loose everything he had.
Fragments of his dreams started to bob up in the back of his eyes. Not concrete images, but the whispers of them, like stale old flavors that ride up with belches.
The trip back to bed was exhausting, and the empty stomach by itself wasn’t enough to keep him awake.
He was out cold again. He was back to the un-dreams, as if watching a television set with a cracked screen.
Actually, that’s what he was doing. He blinked hard at the ruined set. Static filled the screen beneath webs of ruined glass. He looked around and saw that he was sitting in the skeleton of an easy chair that was resting on the rickety planks of a wooden floor.
There must have been a house standing there at one point, but it was gone. The sky was where the roof should have been. A few splintered boards hinted at where walls had been, lined up like broken corn stalks after the harvest.
He squinted at the countryside glowing in the late sunlight. The blue sky was starting to turn colors.
He faced the shaded side of several buildings. A house — one that was intact. A barn. He heard the distant voices of animals. A lone goat. Then the reply of a cow. A child’s giggle.
There was a woman’s voice.
“Dinner! Dinner’s ready!”
Windchimes swelled to life from somewhere as a cool breeze picked up.
He was about to get out of the chair when he was startled by the sound of knocking.
It was coming from the floorboards directly beneath his chair.
Then he was wrested from the dream by the sound of real banging. Someone was beating down his door. He tried to ignore it, but the longer he waited, the more insistent the knocking became. Then a female voice shouted his name. Could his wife have changed her mind?
Under the force of a thin hope, he made his way to the door and he opened it, and found himself staring into the shocked and concerned face of his disgustingly successful sister, Megan.
She looked at him with a mixture of alarm and relief.
“I’ve been calling you for weeks and you never picked up. Then I got a message saying that your number is no longer in service. What’s going on?”
He was about to ask her what she meant when he saw her line of sight go past him, and her face went pale.
He turned around and saw a scene that he couldn’t explain.
Last he knew, he had decided to lay down for an extended nap. But the house behind him was utterly trashed. The last memory in his mind of the kitchen was him getting out some of the beer in the bottom of the fridge and setting it on the dining table.
Now dishes were strewn everywhere, including the floor. Takeout boxes looked like stones from ancient ruins. Food covered the floor, the table, the chairs, and the walls in broad and messy smears.
More wine bottles than he ever remembered having in the house at once were everywhere, some of them cemented in place by smeared food. Beer cans were lined up in places like steadfast soldiers.
A few flies sang together, punctuating the silence.
Fragments of memory returned to him. The walks down to the convenience store for booze. Mostly booze.
The phone’s incessant ringing. Apparently his sister.
But everything else was a blank.
“How long have you been trying to call me?” he said, his voice crackling.
“A couple of weeks, at least. I’ve been worried sick about you. Where’s Kimberly? I couldn’t get in touch with her either.”
“She told me she was pregnant with somebody else’s baby, and then she left. She told me right after I lost my job.”
Megan’s eyes flashed in comprehension.
“So…this?” she said, gesturing to the destruction behind him.
“I don’t remember any of it. All I remember is sleeping and going back to sleep and using the bathroom.”
Shock and pity mingled in her expression. But he could also see the gears turning in her head, which was rarely good.
“Grant, you can’t afford this place by yourself, and it doesn’t look like you’re gonna try to either.”
He shook his head. “I’ll find a way to get back on my feet. I don’t need charity, I just…I just need to catch my breath.”
“Grant, I’m having a hell of a time looking after dad–”
He immediately rolled his eyes and groaned.
“–and he realistically needs to have someone with him around the clock. I can’t do it with a family and all. And you–”
“I’m not going back there.”
“–need a place to land right now until you get your head together. Come on, I’m in charge of dad’s finances. I pay the utilities and everything with his money. You wouldn’t have to do anything or pay for anything, just make sure he doesn’t bust his head open in the tub or wander off the property and make sure he eats. I’m serious. He went looking for one of his war buddies that died fifteen years ago. Police found him in the woods. He thought they were soldiers coming to shoot him.”
* * * * * *
It was the first time Grant had seen his father since he left home, when he was 16 years old. He could see the man he remembered in the washed-out eyes, but the gaze was vacant.
The old man, Emmett, remembered who Grant was, but he talked to him like he was still a child.
Grant punished himself by waiting for a moment of clarity from his father. He expected that any moment, he would look around, realize what year it was and how old his children were and give Grant the most satisfying admittance of fault that he could manage.
Neither moment ever came. The old man was lost someplace where time and guilt couldn’t find him, and Grant hated him for it.
Buried memories born of trauma reached through the ground like the waking dead. He remembered certain angles at which he saw that kitchen table when he got certain bruises across his cheek. Across his back. The stings of slaps and the deep ache of blows. And the child Grant would open his eyes after the strike and see the kitchen table or the stove and the memory was set, ready to be rediscovered like bricks from an ancient civilization.
Something told Grant that his father’s knuckles never stung in reliving those moments. No ghost of Christmas past, no specter of remorse pushed those things back into his consciousness as he steadily sank into the deep, blissful peace of a vegetable.
No wonder Megan doted on her father so much. She never got the rough handling that Grant did. He never figured out why. He more or less figured that his crime was being a boy. The younger Emmett had a bad preoccupation with women. But he must not have been one of those dads. Not with the way Megan kept looking after him.
Emmett spent most of his day sitting at the kitchen table staring at whatever was in front of him, either a newspaper or a cup of coffee. The only thing missing was the houseplant. No, wait. The old man was the houseplant.
Time wore on in days with no measured beginning or end, just the way it had when he was a boy.
One day, Grant went outside to get some fresh air. He tottered around the yard with his hands in his pockets and his chin bouncing off of his chest, as if walking around a cemetery.
So. Many. Years.
So many years he spent pacing that same soil, counting the seconds until he would be able to leave and never look back.
So many years he didn’t understand that one quick phone call to the police would have ended his suffering. But no, he had never been filled in on the fact that there’s nothing abnormal about an abusive alcoholic.
So many years he spent distancing himself from the place, physically and mentally.
So many years his only getaway was out here, with the animals that used to fill up the stables. With the little bit of garden that his mother entrusted to him. Something about the plants and the soil helped him. Soothed him. Created distance inside of him between his soul and his soulless father.
That was one of the things he remembered about his mother. Her way with plants, whether they were for eating or just for blooming. When she wasn’t hurt, she was outside. Dad didn’t like to come outside back then.
He certainly didn’t like to go near the barn. Well, no. He did go out there to drink from time to time, but one day he stopped and never went out there again.
The child Grant picked up on that and tried to make the barn his hiding place. Then he found out real quick why Dad never went out there. Then he too was too afraid to hide out there, even when his dad was in another drunken stupor looking for someone to vent his rage on. There was something out there he couldn’t explain. He just knew that it was terrifying.
The barn was the only part of the property that didn’t seem to have changed at all. Everything else had aged or shifted in some other respect, but the barn was as unchanged as a snapshot.
Grant shuddered and tried not to look at it, but he found himself throwing glances at it. He tried to focus on the ground. Now that Dad wasn’t really supposed to leave the house, he could take up gardening once more.
Why not go back to what worked? Gardening helped him cope with bad luck before. It could help again.
He knelt down and pulled out a clump of scraggly grass from the hard-baked soil.
Then he pulled another. And another. He got absorbed in the activity, just like he had as a child. He was so focused that he didn’t notice the dark clouds that veiled the sun. He barely registered the thunder that rolled in from the horizon. The breeze blew several degrees cooler, and birds sang out an alert.
There was lightning. But he didn’t pay any mind. A few isolated drops kissed the back of his neck. He still took his time.
What finally made him stand bolt upright and clench his teeth and begin sweating had nothing to do with the storm. It was a sound that he had buried deep down along with all those unfortunate years of being a boy to a man like Emmett for a father. Hearing that sound then made his body respond the exact same way it had when he heard it in childhood. He had dreaded hearing it at night.
It came from the barn. A wailing, a mourning, a fountain of agony so grievous and so deep, that there just wasn’t enough air in the lungs to fully jettison all the pain.
It was the one thing he had feared to hear more than he feared hearing his father raise his voice.
He stole away to the house and went inside his room. He was taken aback at just how shaken up he was. If he hadn’t felt like he was back to being a helpless child before, that awful noise sealed the deal.
He eventually figured out that he only heard it when it rained, and he had some flashes of bravery where he tried hiding in the barn when the weather was clear, but he could feel the weight of something unnatural out there. Something wrong. Something unsettled and angered and restless.
For a while, he fooled himself into believing that it was the way the wind whistled inside the barn. But no matter how creative you are, there’s no way to explain how wind can sob.
He tried to take comfort in the fact that the sound only ever came from the barn.
“She can’t leave the barn. She can’t leave the barn,” he muttered to himself in a strained voice that was more child than adult. It had been his mantra every single day, and there he was, clinging to it like a tattered teddy bear. Underneath his blind fear, he felt even more ruined. A grown man that had spent his life building a tower of mental refuge, shaken down to rubble, exposing the child hunkered down inside, rocking back and forth.
And rock he did. Until something reached him that made him freeze. Above the din of rain, he could hear that infernal crying inside his room. That had never happened before. Beads of sweat pearled on his forehead in an instant, and he shivered hard.
He prayed that the rain would come down harder and drown out the sound. Yeah, that was it. The rain was just too soft. Nothing had changed; the sound wasn’t any closer. There just needed to be more rain.
And his prayer was answered. The drops began to come down in sheets until the water battering his windows became pure white, and the sound was as unbroken as static.
He felt better. His heart was still racing, but he felt the tension leave his shoulders.
Right before the shadows of two dark hands slammed against the glass with fingers splayed out. Long, long fingers.
Grant screamed as the palms drummed the glass with the intensity of the rain. A face congealed from the distortion of the rain. The forehead pressed against the glass and the eyes fixated on Grant, anchoring him in place. The thing’s mouth opened, and the wail shook the walls of his room. Shook his soul as it tried to duck down in some deep, safe place inside of him where the caustic waters of that terrible howl couldn’t leak in.
He began to see double again. He could hear his heartbeat loud and clear as the sound of everything else shrank back.
He closed his eyes.
He must have passed out because when he opened his eyes, he had a migraine and a terrible thirst. The storm was gone, and so was the screaming apparition.
Grant wanted a stiff drink more than he wanted his next five minutes of oxygen. There was a hammer in his skull that wouldn’t let up.
He found among his own belongings a trickle of bourbon in a bottle he had forgotten about. It was just enough to tease his senses with the artificial release of indulgence hanging beyond his frayed nerves like a carrot dangling in front of a hungry donkey.
Between the whisper of a buzz and desperation, he had a mind to see if there was anything stronger than water out in the barn. And if there was, he’d be rewarding himself for his courage.
He pulled open the junk drawer in the kitchen, and there was an old yellow flashlight. He took it.
He regarded his father for a moment, who was still sitting at the kitchen table. He had his hands in front of him as if reading a newspaper that wasn’t there.
Bitterness tried to leak in. If ignorance was bliss, then senility must be ecstasy. He shook the flashlight at the barn and continued.
He could see that one of the two great doors was open slightly, as if someone could be inside peeking out. He felt the old terror bloom inside of him. But he choked it back. His thirst was stronger than his fear.
Most of the sky had cleared up and he could tell that the sun was starting to ride low, but darkness was still a ways away.
He had time for what was developing in his mind.
Each step toward that barn was like a turn on a volume knob that was wired to his heartbeat. He just shook his head at it, trying to focus on that scant buzz, and plodded steadily toward those doors until he was close enough to kiss them.
Cool air breathed on him from between the doors. He clicked on the flukey flashlight and looked around. It looked the same. Smelled the same. Dad must not have ever set foot in there. He shone the light around until he saw something lying on the rickety floorboards. It was his super-soldier action figure. He had dropped it the last time that he had been out there when he was a boy. When he had seen her there for the first time. That was when he got the idea in his head that she was confined to the barn. That was the only place he had ever seen her. Up until that last downpour, the barn was the only place he had ever heard her.
He shone the light around. There was Dad’s homemade cabinet, cobbled together with misshapen boards of plywood and nails and hinges. It was a wonder it could ever stand up or the doors could work.
The hinges were held together with nails instead of screws, so the inside or was more or less an iron maiden. The inside was full of husks of rust that had once been paint cans and oil tins.
He wouldn’t have found the bottle of whiskey if he hadn’t lingered on the tall kerosene lantern that was in front of it.
Surely he was dreaming. Surely that wasn’t an unopened bottle. It was. There was a neighbor just like it with a little bit left, but here was another bottle that had gathered decades of dust, untouched.
Grant didn’t know if whiskey got better with age or not. But he was going to find out.
Most of the cork crumbled and fell into the Amber liquid, but Grant didn’t care. His thirst overpowered his concern over all else. It turned out that aged whiskey didn’t get better. Nor did it get worse.
The harsh aroma of the liquid filled his nostrils, and in that moment it was the most comforting thing in the world. He lowered the bottle to breathe and he stopped for just a moment. For half a second, he thought that he smelled rain. But he kept sampling the air, and apparently it was just a fluke. Because all he could smell then was the musty old barn.
The ancient hooch made him shudder a few times. That old stuff had a kick to it. He wanted to chug it. Each nip he took, he swore something around him changed. He’d be damned if he could put his finger on it, though.
His view of the world was starting to sway like a ship, and he found that the old barn wasn’t so scary anymore. It was great. It was like his own private tavern. He could practically feel the old place wink at him, and he winked back.
He drank to his wife. (May the bitch be found in a shallow grave by the highway.) He drank to his perfect sister, who had somehow charmed the universe into handing her everything from the moment she was born.
He drank to twenty-seven years of screwing up, despite his best efforts to erase his old life and create a new one from the ground up after being buried alive in it.
He was thinking about taking the first piece of jagged, sharp metal he could find and cutting 27 lines in his body. One for each year of failure. And just like that, there was a knife in front of him. It was in a hand. The hand was attached to a girl who had to have been about six or seven years old. She was smiling even as dark blood ran from a gash in her throat and stained her striped shirt and blue overalls.
His throat constricted as he looked into her eyes. He could see it. He didn’t recognize the face, but he recognized the eyes. The girl that had beaten his bedroom window. That had screamed and sobbed inside that barn. That had remained the voice of a little girl as he grew into a man.
He blinked and she was gone, the terror almost perfectly suppressed by his intoxication. It wasn’t enough to filter out a cheap jump-scare.
The barn door clattered open, and there was his father staggering inside like he used to. He wasn’t an old man anymore. He was young and robust like Grant. He grasped a bottle of whiskey much like the one his son was holding.
The smell of rain wafted inside. Grant’s inebriated father pulled up a wooden bar stool bald of any cushioning and slumped on it. His lips moved fish-like against the bottle and the potent liquid ran down the corners of his mouth.
Before too long, a little boy and a little girl ran inside the barn, chasing each other.
Emmett barked a syllable that was probably supposed to be “Grant!”
The boy had run off before his father could fully form the word. The girl remained. Something about the barn floor fascinated her. Something about the girl fascinated Emmett.
He got up and shut the barn doors. There was no buzz that could suppress the dread welling up inside Grant as he watched. But he blinked again, and the scene had mercifully changed.
There was the ruined body of the little girl lying limp on the floor. There was Emmett holding a knife while the other hand was trying to pull up his pants. He produced an axe and a shovel and gracelessly hacked up several boards in the barn and lifted them up. He tried to set about digging, but gave up after only a few shovelfuls. The dirt was only falling between the boards and, even in his state, he could tell that time wasn’t on his side.
So he just tucked the girl’s body in the hole he had made and laid the boards back in place. Their splintered and ruined edges screamed that they were witnesses to something awful.
Emmett took an old rug and dragged it over the boards, and piled some random detritus on top.
Grant became aware that he was alone in the barn again. His buzz held, but it was subdued, thanks to a shade of shock-induced sobriety.
He struggled to remember the girl. For everything he was stuck with remembering about that barn, he couldn’t recall anything about the girl. He perceived that he was no longer hallucinating, and there the complicit rubble heap sat.
He set the bottle down unsteadily and began taking things off the pile and tossing them. Bricks. Cinder blocks. Boards.
There was the rug.
He moved it.
There were the ruined boards. The sight of them made him swallow hard.
* * * * * *
Emmett was sitting at the kitchen table when Grant came through the door.
“Done any diggin’ inna dirt? Any garnin’, Grant?”
Grant deposited something in front of his father: A knife. Between Grant’s drunkenness and his father’s senility, he couldn’t tell if the old man recognized the murder weapon or not. He certainly stared at it for a long time.
“How’d you find that?” he finally said.
“I did some digging in the dirt, Dad.”
More staring at the blade.
His father opened his mouth to speak when he was interrupted by the most violent clap of thunder Grant had ever heard. It rocked the house like an earthquake and the lights blew out, their glass singing in the darkness.
Grant instantly sobered up yet another degree.
It shouldn’t have been that dark already. He opened the door again, and the sky was carpeted with the heaviest thunderheads he’d ever seen. And how that thunder rolled and roared from all directions. Grant was soaked in seconds. And yet above the din of it all, he swore he heard his father’s voice in the distance. Lightning lit up the yard just in time to show the barn doors slamming shut.
He acted before his fear could take hold. He darted over to the barn and went inside. The kerosene lantern from the cabinet was lit and sat on the floor, throwing its rays into the recently exposed hole. Something new was in there.
It was the old man. Buried up to his neck. One eye was wide open and round, looking straight at Grant. The handle of the knife bloomed from the other eye. The second whiskey bottle from the cabinet was rammed down Emmett’s throat.
* * * * * *
Grant found himself in a similar state to when this all started, when his job and his marriage evaporated right in front of him.
He didn’t feel any substantial loss over his father. There was some whiplash in the way that his deeds caught up with him, sure, but Grant was in no hurry to call the coroner.
It crossed his mind to tell Megan that dad wandered off again and leave it at that.
The silence of the house was heavier than ever, and yet the place seemed to have less weight. Some unseen loose end was tied off.
Grant lay in the dark staring at the way the rain threw itself against the window. It had let up quite a bit.
“I wish I could remember you,” he said to the glass. “And I’m sorry.”
But there was no answer. No acceptance, no denial.
He reached over to the dark shape of the whiskey bottle and shook it. There was a substantial slosh. Maybe he’d get around to it before falling asleep, maybe not.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableWentz Hesselman Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A