For two decades, the mere hint of a thunderstorm made Creigh take refuge under the comforter that covered the bed he shared with his wife. The comforter, once white and soft had been a wedding gift from his mother-in-law. Today, it was pilled from too many washes and was more gray than white, much like the sky that had quickly changed from ash to pewter as Creigh raced home from the office.
He usually made it to the driveway before a flash of lightning split the sky but this afternoon he had noticed far too late that a spring storm was looming. It was his assistant, Maggie, who had caused him to miss the signs. He couldn't stand the way she nattered on about trivial things like when to schedule lunch during a faculty conference but today her incessant neediness had done more than annoy him, it had placed him in a precarious position. He was caught between his car and the comforter and what separated the two was the thing he feared most.
He considered remaining in the car until the storm passed but he was claustrophobic and even on normal days the compact car reminded him of a coffin and that was with the windows rolled down. He already found it difficult to breathe in the cramped, closed quarters. Besides, his wife had probably heard him pull into the driveway and was waiting for him. He could hear her admonishments delivered in the critical tone she used when he succumbed to childish phobias. And she was right. He was afraid, so much so that his pants were glued to his thighs with sweat. Not for the first time, Creigh wondered why he couldn't be like other people who perspired from their armpits. Instead, when he became nervous his thighs produced enough moisture to make dark stains on his trousers appearing as if he had wet himself. He looked down at his crotch and cringed. Surely Isabelle would not only notice the brownish blotch, she would poke fun at it with acerbic wit. The longer he waited the larger the stain would be. His only option was to run.
Creigh clutched the key ring and waited for the next bolt of lightning. He knew once it struck he had less than a minute to complete the sprint from the car to the porch. It was that kind of knowledge that had convinced his wife he required the assistance of a therapist. She found one, a man with a Finnish last name and a salt and pepper beard. After three sessions, the psychologist labeled Creigh's disorder as Keraunophobia. Only Creigh recognized the misdiagnosis. A phobia was an irrational fear and since he had good reason to steer clear of storms he knew the doctor was mistaken. But his wife seemed satisfied with the analysis. Every month, she filled a prescription for Xanax just like every month he flushed the pills down the toilet. It was a game they played, a game in which both players lost.
He watched lightning pitch from the yard to a baleful cloud hovering over the house and knew the return strokes belonged to a steeped-leader. His chance at escape had arrived. He raced from the car to the porch, the key ring still clutched between his fingers. He sucked in air that smelled like damp dirt and felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand erect. He shoved a key into the lock, turned it and pushed, stumbling into the front foyer.
"Really Creigh, do you have to make such a mess?"
He looked at his wife through the foggy lenses of his glasses. "Itis raining, Isabelle."
"I can see that but surely you don't have to bring buckets of it inside. And look what you've done to your pants."
Creigh pictured her nailed to the frame of an enormous kite fluttering in a storm. Around her neck hung a simple silver necklace and from it dangled a key. He smiled as lightning struck it. He wondered what Dr. Krauss would make of the vision and then decided against sharing it with him. He didn't want uxoricidal fantasies added to his file.
"You find this amusing?"
"Annoying," said Creigh.
"We have company." Isabelle gestured to the living room. It was true that amber light spilled from the usually dark room but he hadn't seen any signs of a visitor. The foyer contained neither a coat nor an umbrella.
"Who is it?"
"Take a look and see."
The only person Creigh called friend was the graduate student who worked as his teaching assistant, and he had left him less than an hour before in the office they shared at the university. He hoped the visitor wasn't someone from the church his wife had insisted they join. They were always sending people to the house to solicit donations for prayer books. Creigh wondered exactly how many bibles a church needed. At the rate the church asked for money, he guessed it had to be thousands.
"I'm not in the mood for guests."
A current surged through Creigh's chest causing air to leak from his lungs like a deflated balloon.
"You could try being a little happier. It's his first visit in ages."
"More like a haunting."
"For God's sake take one of your pills and then come say hello to your son."
The fishing trip was the last time Creigh had spent time with Ben. He remembered how the boy had leaned over the edge of a boat to pry a small mouthed bass from the hook lodged in its mouth. He yanked on the hook until the brown fish broke free. Splish, splash.
"Look what you've done."
Creigh had dropped his umbrella and briefcase on the floor spilling the contents of the latter across the foyer. Double double coffee seeped from his travel mug, forming a pool on the floor.
"It's not like I don't have better things to do." His wife stormed into the kitchen to grab a wad of paper towel.
"I said I was sorry."
"You're always sorry."
Creigh nodded. I've been sorry for twenty years.
Creigh watched the sky shift from turquoise to sapphire. He felt the air thicken and watched the wind whip up waves. "We should head in."
"I'm on a roll." said Ben.
Creigh scanned the sky for flickers of lightning but found none. Dark cumulonimbus clouds hovered above. His skin became clammy. Two splotches appeared on the front of his shorts.
"A storm's coming."
Ben nodded but didn't budge. Creigh chewed the skin surrounding his thumbnail until it bled. When he spoke, the words tasted metallic. "We need to go." Ben sighed but reeled in his line. He started the boat's motor but it's snarl was barely audible over the rumbling thunder. As he navigated the boat through violent waves Creigh clutched and unclutched his left hand until his dull nails broke skin.
Creigh's breath slowed as the shore grew in size but as they floated the final few feet to the dock lightning balls burst in the sky. "Get out," said Ben. I'll tie her up and meet you inside." Creigh eyed his son and then the miserable sky. "I'm fine," Ben said. "Just go."
He leaped from the boat to the dock and ran towards the bait shop. He barged through the door and doubled over, his breaths delivered in pants. Minutes passed before he could stand and look at the dock where Ben had moored the boat. The strike was swift. He watched the bolt toss Ben's smoldering body eight feet down shore. Creigh's throat seized suffocating a scream.
"Where is he?"
"I've already told you, he's in the living room," said Isabelle. "Maybe I should call the doctor."
"It's too late."
Creigh found Ben in the living room, waiting for him. He was dressed in the same clothes he had worn years before and Creigh noticed the rust droplets sprinkled across his chest. It was the blood that had dribbled from his fists to the boy's shirt as he had tried to pound him back to life.
"I thought you weren't coming," said Creigh.
"Just took a while, is all."
Creigh looked at Isabelle who was mopping up the mess in the front foyer. She was humming a tune he didn't recognize and a satisfied expression replaced the scowl she had worn minutes ago. She wouldn't miss him he realized, and the revelation made him feel lighter, almost weightless. For a moment he expected to float with Ben from the room but when Ben walked outside to stand on the lawn under a thundering sky Creigh followed on foot and for the first time in years didn't worry about the sweat seeping through his pants.
BIO: Elisha Wagman is an MFA candidate at The New School and possesses a graduate diploma in Fiction from the Humber School for Writers. She is currently working on a novel and a collection of short stories. She lives in New York where she shares a tiny apartment with her husband, two dogs and hundreds of books.