“The Year of the Thunderstorm”
by Alicia Neptune
When the storm came, no one knew what it was except for you.
We’d been living in the haze of wildfire smoke for weeks. Apocalypse sky, I called it, staring out the window at the eerie orange light. That’s how it felt, watching the flames on the news every day. Our corner TV, usually all sports all the time, became our own personal wildfire monitoring station.
Then the thunder started. Like the gods dropped a bag of marbles. This glorious rumble that rolled across the valley. The storm was the exact opposite of that hot, dead haze. Wind blew in cool from the west. Purple lightning crackled in the air. Rain set every leaf jumping. I could breathe again. I switched off the news, sat on the front steps, and waited for you to get home.
It was not very sympathetic of me to be so excited. Would it make any difference to know I was holding myself back? You ran from the car to the sheltered steps with your jacket pulled over your head, and all I wanted to do was take your hand and run back out into the rain. Except you were shaking—actually trembling—and you crashed into me like we were long-distance lovers at the airport. We stood there with our arms around each other for ages before you let me free my arm to open the door.
I didn’t get it. I get it now.
You being afraid of lightning is not like me being afraid of phone calls or spiders. It’s not even like my fear of a meteor crashing into the Earth. If a meteor hit the Earth, we would all go together. Wrapped up in my fear is that one comfort.
I wish you had told me earlier, but I guess you tried to. It was right there on your profile under “Something you should know about me.” I’m afraid of thunderstorms. That sentence was doing a lot of heavy lifting. I thought it was sort of sweet. If a storm rolled in, we didn’t go out. And for two years, that was just fine with me.
The thing about thunderstorms, the thing that always made them exciting and not scary, is that they end. They aren’t like the rain or the haze. They don’t linger. I expected to wake and find the wildfire smoke had finally cleared, leaving behind a picnic-ready blue sky. What I got was thunder, and you at the window, watching the lightning. And again the next day. And then it was Monday.
The storm’s persistence had already worn down your nerves. You hardly slept all weekend. It was one thing for you to call in sick. It was another to ask me to.
“I know you don’t like me going out in a storm,” I said. “But I’ll be fine. I’ll go straight to the museum.”
“Please,” you said. “Just today.”
I didn’t have to decide, in the end. They issued a severe thunderstorm warning. We all stayed home.
How long can one storm last? The meteorologists debated while we learned to just live with it. That meant something different for everyone. For us, it meant a lot of time at home. More time than we’d ever spent together.
Before the routine went stale and things started to fall apart, you and I laid on the living room carpet and stared up at the ceiling. The curtains were open. Rain beat against the windows. And every so often—a flash.
“I got caught in a lightning strike once,” you said.
“Jesus. You were struck by lightning?” I remember fumbling for the right words. “I’m sorry.”
“Everything went white. Bright, like when the sky is covered with clouds and it hurts to looks directly at it. And it wasn’t raining anymore.”
“What happened? Did you have to go to the hospital?”
“I thought I died. I couldn’t feel anything. It was like my body didn’t exist. I was just…there. For a long time.”
“You must have passed out.”
“I didn’t. I don’t know what happened, but it took me someplace. Then it dropped me back here, and I’d been missing for two days.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I just don’t want that to happen to you.”
I didn’t ask you anything. I didn’t ask how old you were or what happened when you got back. I guess I thought if you wanted to tell me, you would just tell me. So I let the silence wedge itself between us, and we never really recovered.
The great flood. I called it that more than once, standing at the window in awe, watching sidewalk rivers flow past clogged storm drains. Goddamn. The imagery. Biblical curses have always been my favourite curses.
Trees came down on the power lines up north. It took ages to restore service because it was too dangerous to be doing electrical work. The soil on the ridge along Hwy 98 started to erode and it brought boulders down onto a delivery truck. The province was taking a beating.
I set up my home work station in the dining room, where I could hear the rain on the skylight. You turned our closet into a mini recording studio, soundproofing and all, and hid yourself away in there. We managed.
If the storm calmed down at night, and I was certain you were asleep, I would sneak outside to stand in the rain. The last time wasn’t the first time. Did you know? You must have known. I’d been going out for ages.
We were trapped in this box together. I just wanted some space. I’m torn between remembering my need for solitude and regretting how much I took you for granted.
No one noticed folks were going missing at first. In the early weeks, there were hikers unaccounted for, sure. People in accidents or stuck behind some landslide up in the mountain passes where there’s no service. But then there were those folks, like, four months in who just vanished. Enough of them that people started to notice. People started thinking it was the rapture. I started thinking you were one of those people.
I found the throwaway account you made. The forum where you shared your experience and people didn’t just believe you, they looked to you for answers. I’m so mad, looking back at it. Not at you—I’m mad at myself. I’m mad I didn’t figure out how to talk to you about this. And okay, maybe a little mad at you for talking to strangers on the internet when you weren’t talking to me.
But I didn’t go out that night to spite you. I swear I didn’t.
You were snoring, so I figured I was safe. I crept out of bed and avoided the one squeaky part of the floor. I put my favourite raincoat on over my pyjamas and pulled the hood up, and wore my winter boots, since I never did bother to get real rain boots.
It was warm out. We’d lived through the storm for three-quarters of a year and made it back to spring. I didn’t go far, just up the street, around the cul-de-sac, and back again. The tree in our neighbours’ front yard was looking the worse for wear. I scraped some leaves out of the storm drain.
There was a flash, and then a marvelous crash of thunder. Like it was right on top of me. I stood rooted to that spot. It was a perfect crescendo. I felt it in my spine.
And then there was you, shouting through the rain. “Hold on! Don’t move!”
You were holding my hand. And then—
I know you got to me in time. When I think about it, I can feel your hand in mine, just like I can feel my teeth ache when I think about biting into an apple.
So why didn’t it take me too? Did I let go? Did you?
It’s over now. A year to the day it first started, the storm finally packed its things and left.
You said you went missing for two days back then. It’s been a lot longer than that. I’ve had time to think about what I should’ve done different.
I think what I should have said, the very first day, was, “Let’s be scared together.”
I hope you found all those other people. I hope they found you. I hope you’re not alone, wherever you are.
I hope the lightning gives you back.
This story first appeared in emerge22: The Writer's Studio Anthology in 2022.