Previous scene: Elisha is told about her next job.
4 · Weather
A light breeze began to stir as Martha trailed her sister. Elisha looked back every few seconds before throwing open the front door and barreling into the house. Martha nearly tripped several times as she followed, her body dizzy and clumsy, foot lumbering over foot. Though a heavy mix of fear and curiosity made her legs feel as heavy as an elephant’s, she continued marching forward.
As soon as she reached the front room, Martha saw Grandma Ellie on her feet. A pair of knitting needles and orange yarn lay on the carpet beside her still-swaying rocking chair.
“Carol, lock the back door! I’ll get the windows!” Grandma shouted toward the rear of the house.
She reached down and laid her hands on Elisha’s shoulders.
“You know the routine, honey. Grab on to your sister and head to the kitchen.” Grandma left the room, followed by slamming windows and Mom’s echoing shouts. The heat had been intense the past few days, so no doubt every window that could be opened, had been.
Elisha reached for Martha, but Martha pulled away. She couldn’t say why.
Martha was frozen. Her brain couldn’t formulate a rational response for her mouth to give. She only knew she didn’t want to go to the kitchen. Not this time. Elisha’s eyes grew watery as most of her body was already leaning toward the kitchen door.
“Please! Come on!”
Still, Martha remained in place. Her sister reached out once more, almost violently, but Martha stepped back. Without a further word, Elisha gave Martha a look she would never forget and ran through the kitchen door. It swang back and forth, squeaking on rusted hinges.
When the white clouds come, you had better run.
The rhyme that Grandma and Mom had sung since Martha and Elisha were little girls resonated through Martha’s head, along with variations she had heard over her short life.
No dilly-dallying. You see those clouds, you get, and you get now.
It had been several months since those clouds had come. When they did, the girls had been instructed to squeeze into the bottom of the kitchen pantry. They’d crouch down and bend themselves crooked, cursing each other every time their knees banged together. Once inside, something heavy was always placed against the door to keep them from getting out. Martha assumed it was Mom or Grandma. She never counted down the minutes in the sweltering pantry, but by the time they had been set free, sweat had caked their hair and pressed their clothes to their flesh.
One time, Martha had asked Grandma where she and Mom went while the girls hid, but the answer was always the same.
We’re watching over the fish.
Martha wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but no matter how angry she was at having been stowed away, she always felt comforted by that fact. She liked the fish too. Maybe she wanted to watch over the fish. Maybe that’s what held her back this time. Whatever the reason, she knew she didn’t want to be shoved back into that pantry to contend with Elisha.
Martha looked down the hall toward the rear of the house. She walked slowly until she reached the back room. It was empty. Why Mom or Grandma had not come for her yet, she didn’t know. Maybe they assumed she was already in the cabinet and Elisha hadn’t said anything to them. Once they found out, Martha imagined they would be furious, much like the wind now kicking up and rattling the window frames.
Through one such frame, a small picture window facing the porch, Martha could see the clouds were no longer clouds, but a cloud, without break, without division. Past the window, past the porch’s mesh insect screens, and past the rose bushes separating the immediate backyard from a larger one, the cloud enveloped the entire world. The utility shed, the telephone poles, the dilapidated chicken coop built by the previous owner, all victims of the unrelenting fog.
A pair of rabbits emerged from the bushes, hopping rapidly toward the house, but they too were swallowed whole until the cloud came face-to-face with the porch. Martha thought it was odd that the cloud didn’t seep through the screens, especially with the wind now howling through every open crack in the house. Something suddenly smacked against the back of the porch, shaking the back wall. Martha felt as if it had slammed right into her chest. She quickly dropped to the floor and pressed her back up against the wall, her arms splayed out as if it were up to her to keep the walls from collapsing. The small window rattled and shook above her head. The porch’s wooden supports creaked and groaned, threatening to splinter and snap at the slightest sneeze.
Martha’s heart was beating rapidly and she realized her eyes were closed so tight as to cause pain. She relaxed them, but still held fast to the wall. She wondered what she should do. Should she try and find Mom and Grandma? Whenever Martha had disobeyed them before, neither made any bones about making sure she would never do it again. A whooping and a grounding were undertaken without hesitation.
She thought about running for the kitchen pantry, whatever the consequences. There ought to be some leniency for turning herself in, right? She pictured Elisha curled up, probably crying because her sister wasn’t there. It would be just like her to cry because Martha got away with something she didn’t.
Just then, Martha thought that she heard a faint voice. It took her a moment to piece together the words, but if she tried really hard, she could almost make out her name. The strange part is that it sounded like it was being carried by the wind. As if it came from outside.
Maybe Mom and Grandma are out there, she thought. They’re looking after the fish and they need her help. Martha’s arms were growing tired and as if the world had decided to listen to her for once in her life, the wind died. It just stopped.
Is it over? Is the cloud gone?
Martha finally opened her eyes and relaxed her shoulders just a little, her hands still held out slightly. Perched on a table near the hallway was the old black-and-white television. There was no sound, only snow. Mom usually had the television on with the volume turned down, so this was no surprise. She said it helped her concentrate on what was really being said, but Martha couldn’t quite figure out what that meant. Come to think of it, Mom and Grandma said a lot of funny things.
It was then that Martha decided she was going to do the very thing that a large part of her told her she shouldn’t. She was going to stand up, look out the window, and see what was going on. She had gone this far, so why not? Maybe the cloud has passed. The house was silent as it had been before.
She stood and looked out the window. Her eyes grew wide. The stark white cloud was still there, hanging quietly outside the porch with no sign of penetrating the porous screens.
And then something happened.
It was hard to catch at first as only a little bit of the cloud gave way, but soon there was what appeared to be a slim passage carved out from the cloud, revealing a little bit of the weed-scattered backyard and reaching all the way up to the blue sky. A flicker of movement pulled Martha’s eyes toward the back of the passage. She saw what became two bodies moving toward the porch, and she knew instantly that it wasn’t Mom and Grandma.
The bodies were roughly of equal size and shape. The one on the right caught Martha’s eye first: an old man, slightly hunched, but walking smoothly with a large cane. He was wearing a white, short-sleeved, buttoned shirt tucked into a pair of black slacks. It looked like his neck and arms had been dipped in dark paint.
Next to him was one of the most beautiful women that Martha had ever seen. Black wavy hair, dark eyebrows and light eyes that stood in stark contrast to the surrounding cloud. She was wearing a loose white dress covered in large black polka-dots. If she were wearing heels instead of flat shoes, Martha imagined she would tower over the man.
They were both smiling gently. A part of Martha was telling her to run, but her curiosity and something about their smiles kept her feet glued to the floor.
Again she heard the voice. This time it was much clearer, was definitely coming from outside, was definitely saying Martha’s name, and was definitely not Mom or Grandma. It was coming from the man, she knew, though she never saw his lips move. As the two approached the porch, Martha remained in place, an ever smaller part of herself wanting to hide, but still unable to do so. She got a better look at the couple. What she thought was paint on the man’s skin was actually a tight grouping of tattoos. A mixture of swirling lines, cartoon men, and what looked like writing in a foreign language.
Continuing to smile, the woman lifted her free hand and slowly pulled her finger back in a come-here motion. Martha looked up at her grayish-blue eyes and couldn’t stop. She felt herself almost falling into them.
A moment later, she found herself inexplicably standing on the porch, staring opposite those eyes through the screen door. She reached for the handle. Even though her vision was locked, she could feel the old man’s smile growing wider, revealing a blackness that she knew had been there all along.
A blackness that came upon her as she swung open the door.