Summer storms are one of the things I miss most from the prairies.
They’re rare on Prince Edward Island, but they happen occasionally. I woke up to thunder a few nights ago. A huge crack of it, right outside our bedroom window. I had a hard time sleeping after that. Weird dreams.
And the next day, I had this weird-ass story.
—read best as it was written, while listening to Lana Del Rey
“It’s too hot to sleep.”
I swept Cruise’s hair away from his face. He lay on top of the blankets, naked with the exception of his beloved Spiderman underwear, staring up at me in the candlelight, his seven-year-old features gleaming under a sheen of sweat.
“You won’t notice the heat once you fall asleep, baby.” I leaned with a kiss for the top of his head and smiled. Standing, I returned his book to the shelf and took the candle from the top of his dresser. “They’ll probably have the power on by morning. I’ll make you toast with cinnamon and brown sugar for breakfast.”
“You’re trying to bribe me,” he said, pulling a stuffed dragon with oversized eyes close to his chest. “It won’t work.”
“You need to sleep. It’s time.”
“Good night, Momma.”
“Love you, kiddo.”
Ben tossed his cell phone on the coffee table as I entered the living room. Placing Cruise’s candle next to it, I sank onto the opposite side of the couch.
“Who were you talking to?” I asked, glancing at his phone, forcing an air of lightness into the question.
“No one.” He offered a quick smile. Something had been bothering him all week. He’d been playing it off, but after seventeen years together, the signs were easy to spot. The strained conversation. The way he rolled toward the opposite side of the room when we went to bed. “I was just playing Sudoku. Battery’s out now. I’ll have to wait for the power to come back.”
I lifted my feet onto the ottoman. “I wish we had a generator, at least for the air conditioner. I can feel your body heat from here.” Fanning myself with a magazine from the basket on the floor, I asked, “What do you think happened to the power, anyway?”
Living so deep in the country had its advantages. Cruise, Lily, and Grace were free to roam the meandering trails on their four-wheelers in summer and on the snowmobiles in winter, paid for with the money left over after trading the cramped, million-dollar condo in Vancouver for our sprawling acreage in Saskatchewan. Nestled so far in the woods, we had no neighbors. Ben converted the old barn across the yard into a studio with large windows that invited the natural light he so coveted to brighten his herculean canvases. I had turned the spare bedroom into the office I’d always dreamt of and, after quitting my job as a content writer, the free time I needed to complete my second novel. The kids all had their own rooms. The move granted us everything we could ever want out here, and while I never once regretted leaving British Columbia the year before, I did miss how easily accessible information had been in the city. The power had been out for three hours, and we still had no idea why.
“The heat,” Ben answered. “Probably a transformer. Are Lily and Grace asleep?”
The basement stairs appeared dark. “I think so. Finally. It’s nearly midnight, they’ll be tired at school tomorrow.”
Ben’s gaze wandered back to his phone on the coffee table. He masked a frown with his hand.
“You sure everything’s okay?” I prodded, knowing it was her. It was always her.
“Yeah.” He stood. “We should go to bed, too. Not much to do without the power.”
I let out an annoyed groan, rising to my feet. “Why’s it so hot, anyway? It’s supposed to be freezing this time of year. It’s almost November, for Christ sake.” The heatwave had arrived the week before, our summer clothes having already been packed away.
Ben made his way to the living room window, wearing only a tattered pair of shorts that somehow eluded my last trip to the donation box. I enjoyed the sight of him staring into the night: the way his naked back tapered so neatly into the elastic band of his shorts.
“Ah. Who knows,” he said, his shoulders uncharacteristically tense. “Seems to be shifting though. There’s a breeze now, at least.”
I joined him at the window. He was right. A cool stream of air filtered through the screen. Closing my eyes, I enjoyed the feel of it against my face. “Tell me the truth.” I turned to face him. “Has she been messaging you again?”
The candles flickered behind us, caught in the breeze. Ben sighed. “I’m not encouraging her, Terra.”
“What’s she saying?”
“She’s been depressed. She’s . . . in a dark place.”
I crossed my arms, suddenly thankful his phone had died. There had been many reasons for the move from civilization as we knew it: the traffic, the hectic lifestyle, the endless cycle of day after day of gray skies; but leaving Helena behind to keep our family intact had been the biggest.
“How depressed?” I asked.
He lowered his head. “Before the phone died, she said . . .”
I waited, saying nothing, refusing to prod him on. It was a mess he had gotten himself into. A mess he promised was over.
Ben cleared his throat. “She picked up some sleeping pills.”
“She can’t sleep?” I asked, with a feeling that wasn’t where the conversation was going. I’d been trying to forgive Helena for stealing him away. My husband. Not because I felt she deserved forgiveness, but because my hate had consumed me the past two years. Changed me. Ben was doing everything he could to save our family. It was only fair that I tried too.
“I don’t know.” He shrugged.
“You think she would . . .”
“I don’t know.”
The world would be better off without her. I bit my lip, holding the comment in. “Would you like to call her?”
“Is there any charge in your phone?”
“No.” I answered, silently thanking Cruise for draining the battery playing Minecraft. It seemed that the seventeen hundred miles we’d travelled wasn’t enough to keep Helena from my husband. Maybe if she killed herself it would be over and done. Let her beautiful face and her flawless body rot six feet under the ground if that was what it took to keep her from my family.
Ben rubbed the back of his neck, absentmindedly flexing the muscles along his arm and the left side of his body. He was handsome. One of the handsomest men I’d ever seen. A brilliant artist. I doubted I could have forgiven another man for the pain his affair had cause me. Of course Helena was depressed. I had been depressed too, when I found out about her. Would I have killed myself? No. But then, I had the kids. Helena had nothing.
“You’re right,” I said finally. “We should go to bed.”
By the time we completed our nightly rituals of face-washing and teeth-brushing, the wind had picked up substantially.
Ben closed the bedroom windows halfway while I peed in the en-suite. He peered across the yard. “It’s getting wild out there.”
The shrubs surrounding the outer wall of the bathroom scraped the siding in the wind. I rose, pulling up my pants and flushing the toilet. Out the small window, I caught sight of the trampoline in the yard. “We should run out and take the safety net down. If it gets windy enough that thing will end up in our roof.”
Ben’s shoulder slumped. “Oh, hell. I’ll do it.”
“I can come—”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll be right back.” He grabbed a flashlight from the closet and pulled a shirt on before making his way down the hall. In a minute backdoor slammed shut behind him. I sat on the bed. The sound of crisp autumn leaves rustled noisily though the window. I strained to see Ben climbing onto the trampoline to wrestle with the safety net in the darkness. Above, the slivered crescent of the moon was white and bright, and then it was covered by a thick patch of quickly moving cloud. The earthy, delicious smell of fast approaching rain filled the air.
Footsteps shuffled on the floor behind me. It was Cruise. The hair rose along the back of my arms. His face had paled since I’d tucked him in. His eyes were empty. Hollow.
Crossing the room, I knelt before him. “Cruise?” I refrained from touching him, remembering what the pediatrician in Vancouver had said. “Are you all right?”
He nodded. Despite his recent growth spurt, he still had a little baby fat. His little belly protruded slightly over his underwear. The innocent expression that usually brightened his baby-blue eyes was gone.
“Are you asleep, baby?” I asked. How long had it been since I’d left his room? A half-hour at most. Obviously, that was all it took. It was the second time I’d caught him sleepwalking that week.
He mumbled indiscernibly. Garbled, halting vowels and sharp constants. My pulse raced. Ben handled Cruise’s sleepwalking better than I did.
“Do you need to use the bathroom?” I asked.
He seemed to look right through me. “It’s going to storm.”
My breath caught in my throat. He talked in his sleep a hundred times before. But, his words were always mangled, as if he was speaking in tongues. I’d never been able to understand him.
His head tilted slightly to the side, blonde hair ruffled in the back from sweating against his pillow. He reached out blindly to touch my arm. “Be careful, Momma.”
I let out a quiet gasp. The words were jarringly clear, his breath a ripple of heat against my face. I swallowed, buying time, gathering myself. “It’s time for bed, baby,”
“Momma.” Cruise leaned with a whisper, sleeping blue eyes clear and wide. “She’s coming.”
A chill rose up my spine. I hesitated, staring at my only son. My sweet boy. “Who’s coming, honey?”
The backdoor slammed. Ben lumbered up the stairs. He came in breathing hard, the flashlight brightening our room. “It’s going to pour out there.” He caught sight of Cruise.
“What’s he doing up?”
“He’s not up.” My attention returned to Cruise. The older he grew the more he looked like his father: the same wide shoulders, square jaw, and puckered lips. He was my baby. A perfectly unspoiled replica of the man I’d fallen in love with so long before. “He’s asleep, I think.”
“I’ll take him to his bed.” Ben laid his hand on Cruise’s back to usher him slowly down the hall. “Let’s go, buddy.”
I waited for Ben to return, listening to the wind wail against the outer walls of the house. Something was banging in the distance. A door, maybe. An open gate. I retrieved the discarded flashlight and slipped past Ben speaking softly, calmly to Cruise while tucking him safe beneath his blankets, and descended the stairs to the entryway. Pushing firmly against the closed door, I turned the deadbolt sideways at the top. Ben installed it when we first moved to the acreage. The last thing we had wanted was Cruise sleepwalking out of the house in the dead of winter. I glanced into the front yard through the window. The trees swayed violently in the wind. Rain droplets spotted the glass.
Moving systematically from one room to the next, I closed the windows. Grace and Lily lay still in their rooms in the basement, breathing heavily, blissfully unaware of the coming storm.
Ben stripped to his underwear and laid down on the bed. “This rain is exactly what we need. It’ll take some of the humidity out of the air. Cruise will be fine tomorrow.”
He was right, of course. Cruise’s sleepwalking somehow always grew worse in extended periods of humidity. Laying next to Ben I let out a long breath. “I hate when Cruise talks in his sleep.”
Ben let out a sigh. “He’s fine, Terra. It’s natural. Weird, but natural.”
We blew out our candles. Ben was restless. I was certain he was thinking of Helena. There was nothing he could do from here. All the same, I could practically feel her in the bed between us. I turned to face the window. Rain came in waves against the pane. We listened to the storm separately until almost two hours had passed, and Ben’s breathing became heavy. Sleep came slower for me. Now and then my body became weightless, my thoughts setting adrift as the edges of my consciousness began to soften.
I’d only seen Helena once, across a busy street. She’d been with Ben, coming out of a hotel paid for with our credit card. She was prettier than me. A couple years older. He told me she was an artist, like him. An artist like Ben, who felt deeper than other people. Loved harder.
Could she have loved him more than I did? Did it matter? He was mine. Maybe she was lying to him about the pills; using whatever means necessary to pull him back into her web. Maybe she wouldn’t take the them.
And maybe she would.
Oh God, I hoped she would.
I imagined her sitting in her condo, her shining black hair pulled into a perfect bun on the very top of her head, rolling the bottle of pills back and forth across the coffee table with the tips of her thin fingers. I willed her to open them. I willed her to pick up the glass of Malbec I pictured beside her.
It’ll be easier if you do it, Helena.
Rain pounded against the roof. Wind whipped at the walls. Weightless, weightless, weightless. My awareness drifted, euphoria closing in as sleep worked to erase Ben’s lover from my mind.
My eyes fluttered open. A slow roll of thunder moved in like an animal approaching in the night.
I had lifted from the bed.
Ben lay below me, still. I tried to scream his name but no sound came out. My arms and legs and head hung back, unresponsive. My chest was tight. Cramped. Expelling my soul. Forcing my consciousness outward, outward, outward. Into what? Where would my soul go if not inside my body? Uncontained, it would spill free, separate, disappear. I would be gone, just like that. And then? My body would be empty, an old house, waiting for a renter.
Another slow roll of thunder carried with it a resonance I imagined to be a woman’s voice, a woman’s scream, a battle cry in the night. I tried to yell again. Air poured freely from my lungs. No sound. Ben let out a stammered snore beneath me. Adrenaline pumped furiously from my heart. I swayed slightly, left and right, rocking in an invisible cradle, led by a force rising somewhere from my chest.
“Ben!” I managed finally.
His eyes flew open. Could he see me in the darkness? He patted the mattress and glanced up, stiffening. Launching from the bed he stood against the wall, immediately awake. “Terra, what the fuck?”
“Help!” I reached toward him. The rocking motion intensified. I was sick, swaying back and forth above the bed, limbs flailing. “Get me down.”
The electricity surged a moment, flashing through the lights. Ben’s face appeared white beneath his stubble. He was frozen, glancing wildly around the room.
The light died out. The room seemed blacker than before.
Cruise’s shockingly blank face. She’s coming.
It wasn’t possible. I was dreaming, wasn’t I? This was my body. My husband. Mine.
Helena was lying. She wouldn’t kill herself.
“Terra!” Ben’s voice was closer. “Grab my hand.”
It was too dark to see. I swung in, arm flailing. I brushed the edge of his hand before swinging back. He grabbed me when I came in again. The energy shuttling me by my chest was too strong.
Ben let go before my arm could snap. Back I went. The motion grew manic. I was swung like a pendulum, back and forth and back again. My stomach rolled. “Ben!”
“Tell me what to do, Terra!”
What could he do?
I imagined myself to be a sponge trying to reabsorb my soul; focusing on breathing in and out and in again: using my lungs to pull the spilled me back. My body. I was released. Flung onto the floor. There was a crunch. Something hard protruded beneath my back. Pain screamed from my ribs. I’d landed on something. The flashlight?
Ben rushed to me. “What happened?” He held me by my shoulders. “What the fuck was that?”
I couldn’t bring myself to say it.
I said the only thing I could. “I don’t know.”
There was a bang from downstairs. A door slamming. Grace screamed. I pushed Ben backward, trying to stand. A warm stream drained from my ribs down the back of my nightgown. A surge of pins and needles accosted my limbs.
Ben moved to the dresser. A match flared across the room. The candle was immediately snuffed out. It remained lit on the third attempt. Ben and I made our way down the stairs quickly, Ben guarding the wildly flickering flame with his hand. A clap of thunder shook the house, loud, and long, and close.
Helena was in it.
She was all around us now.
I held onto Ben’s arm as he opened Grace’s door. “Honey?”
Wind blasted the curtains out from her open window. Our eldest daughter shuffled back in her bed, long hair wildly disheveled. Both girls took after me more than their father; with the same mousy hair, and extra flesh around the waist and hips.
“Sorry,” she panted. “The thunder scared me. The wind blew my door shut.”
At fourteen, Grace rarely looked like a child anymore. Now it was all I saw. I raced past Ben to embrace her, eager for an excuse to hold another person, heart hammering heavily beneath my breast. Ben closed the window with a thud.
“Why’d you open the window?” I asked Grace, holding her soft frame tight.
“It was open when I went to bed.”
“I know.” I glanced at Ben. “I closed it.”
Lily padded in, rubbing her eyes. “What’s going on?” She was two years younger than Grace, but unlike her older sister she appeared unfazed by the storm. Thunder roared around us. The basement windows flashed bright.
Slam, slam, slam. The bedroom doors blew shut upstairs.
Wind ripped through the house. Had every window opened?
Ben blinked. “Cruise!”
I pulled Grace’s hand. She shimmied from the blankets. Ben raced up the stairs past the front door to check Cruise’s room. The girls and I stayed on the steps. I looked up at the lock. The knob was vertical. Open, and intact. It had to have been turned from the inside. But, by who? Cruise wasn’t tall enough. He was only seven.
Only seven. Pure, and good, and mine.
“Ben,” I yelled. “Is he up there?”
Lily took my hand. “What’s going on?”
“Daddy’s just checking Cruise,” I answered, as calmly as I could. “Ben!”
He rounded the corner, panicked. “He isn’t there.”
Thunder clapped, retreating. Seconds passed. Lighting illuminated the front door. Something was written on the surface, scrawled deep into the wood.