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Jacob Strunk short story


by Jacob Strunk

            She feels their eyes on her, and she hears the accusation in their silence as she drops down from the cab of her truck. She drops the tailgate, pulls out two black trash bags bulky with waste. She stickers them and walks them across the transfer station lot. The half dozen or so folks already there stop jawing, watch her with stony stoicism as she hoists the bags into the compactor.

            “Morning, Charlotte.” It’s Zeke, tipping his hat back with a folded knuckle and nodding at her. He’s leaning on the compactor, his arms crossed, heavy work gloves on his hands. She smells alcohol on his breath.

            “Zeke,” she says. It’s not much, but this weekly exchange is about the only pleasantry she’s granted these days on her rare trips into town. She goes back to her truck, pulls out a box of recyclables, walks it across the lot. She makes eye contact with each of them: Fran, the retired school teacher cum town secretary; Peter, who runs heating oil to most of the houses on the mountain; Juliet, who welcomed Charlotte and Alex to town with a basket of blackberry tarts. Juliet looks away as Charlotte passes. It stings. Still. Always.

            She makes a big show of climbing up into the cab of her truck, then theatrically waves out the window to the town dump social club, the lot of them. Only Zeke waves back, spitting brown tobacco juice onto the gravel as he does.

            It’s three miles up the mountain, but it might as well be another world. She turns off the blacktop onto Paradise Road, the truck’s tires crunching satisfactorily on the gravel. Then it’s over the new culvert and left onto Old Cut Road, barely more than two wheel ruts climbing up and away from the horse pastures and seasonal cottages surrounding the village. Up and up, as the trees crowd ever closer, scraping sometimes along the doors, whacking against the mirrors. The canopy chokes out the sun. The windows down, Charlotte feels the temperature drop five degrees. Then ten. She leans close to the open window, breathes it in.

            Then she rounds the final corner and the forest gives way to meadow, her meadow, and every time it feels like being born anew. There are two deer down by the pond. She waves at them, too, but this time she means it. They looks up briefly, then return to chewing the long grass that grows at the pond’s shore. Alex’s grandfather, she knew, had been meticulous about keeping the grass knocked down, pulling most of the weeds and lily pads; he left enough to nurture the frogs and the fish, and every morning he’d sit in the screened gazebo with his newspaper and his coffee. The screen is torn now, the gazebo host to spiders and mouldering lawn furniture. Mice have built burrows in the chairs. The small wooden table, purpose built by hand to hold a cup of coffee and the Sunday Times, sits crooked, its legs chewed by generations of varmints.

            Charlotte parks the truck outside the garage. She stands for a moment, looking out across the meadow, at the green forest stretching endlessly below her, at the peak of Mount Agnes fifteen miles away. The sky to the west looks ominously dark, and Charlotte heard on Vermont Public this morning that a storm system was heading their way. She goes around the house to the back door, kicks off her shoes in the mudroom. The house is silent. She thinks again of getting another dog. It’s so quiet up here. Then again, isn’t that the point?

            Alex was the one with family in Carversville, but it was her idea to move. By June of 2020, New York City felt like a prison. Their apartment was spacious and even had a view of the park if you craned your head enough. But as the realization settled that this pandemic was just getting started, Charlotte began to feel a claustrophobia that was alien to her. Suddenly the city where she’d lived her entire adult life felt like a nemesis, a danger, thick with contagion. She floated the idea to Alex over dinner one night, and by October their apartment was cleared out and on the market, and she was following the U-Haul up I-91 through New Haven and Hartford in their Audi, their mild-mannered rescue mutt Birdie riding shotgun, then onto state highways and through towns you’d miss if you so much looked down to change the radio station.

            Alex’s cousins were relieved to unload the property and wash their hands of the old house. The upkeep was getting to be too much, the repairs too expensive. The price was fair, below market; it was a project house, and they both dove headfirst into the opportunity. After twenty years in the city, Charlotte awoke each morning no less enchanted by the sweet, earthy smell reaching for her through the open bedroom window, beckoning her to step outside, to hold her arms wide and give herself over to the Green Mountains. They painted and sanded and stained. They weathered their first winter by the hearth, bought new L.L. Bean boots. They traded the Audi for the Ford, four wheel drive and a long bed. Alex restored the wood stove in the barn and used the drafty old building as his studio, uncovering the antique furniture and working on a new book with a vigor Charlotte hadn’t seen in him since they were young. They were happy days. Good days. And until Alex died, hanged from the barn rafters by a length of nylon rope, she let herself believe they could stay that way forever.

            The storm arrives in the early afternoon, the sky blackening like spilled ink, an eerie calm settling over the mountain. From here on top, Charlotte can see nearly to Ludlow, and she stands on the porch feeling the pressure drop and watching a wall of rain inch across the valley. Then the winds come. And the downpour. She lights a fire in the fireplace and settles in with a book. She has candles ready for the inevitable loss of power, plenty of fresh water from the artesian well, ice packs already placed in the refrigerator. Truth be told, she feels comfort in the storms. They remind her, in some small way, of life in the city, all chaos and fury.

            The power stays on, and Charlotte bakes a chicken breast and sautés some asparagus listening to weather reports on the radio. Montpelier has issued an alert for possible flooding, and a voluntary evacuation of downtown has already started. The river is already up three feet in Ludlow, which lies almost entirely on the floodplain. But Charlotte’s not on a floodplain. Charlotte is, in fact, on top of a mountain. She’s glad to hear no one’s been hurt; she knows she’d feel guilty for how much she’s enjoying the storm.

            She eats on the screened in porch. She has the lights on, though sunset isn’t for another two and a half hours; the dark sky stretches across to the horizon, high altitude clouds dumping waves of rain. Thunder rolls back and forth through the valleys, and more than one lightning strike lands close enough that she can smell the ozone, hear the crackle of the electrified air. Maybe she should stay inside, but she finds herself always thrilled with the passion of the storms. And hadn’t Alex told her of his grandmother’s warning to stay away from the faucets in a lightning storm? The spring house was hit at least once a summer? Of course, the artesian well went in 30 years ago and the spring house is no more than a brick foundation overgrown by wildflowers. But it sounds like a safer bet out here on the porch, where the air is thick with nitrogen, the cool copper smell of a summer storm.

            Another lightning strike. Charlotte runs a forkful of chicken through the last of her mashed potatoes. She’s heard lightning is attracted to granite, too, and thus drawn to the mountain. But that’s apocryphal, and she’s enjoying the rush of the wind and the tuning orchestra of rain and thunder too much to care.

            She stokes the fire and returns to her book. The power flickers for a beat around 10:30, the lights momentarily dimming. She hears the beep of the battery backup still in Alex’s study sounding its warning alarm. In the kitchen, the fridge clunks as its compressor kicks back on. The fire burns down to embers, and she can finish the book in the morning. She takes her pills, drinks a second tall glass of water, and trudges upstairs. She’s more tired than she realized.

            In the dream, Alex is hanging in the barn, still alive, his fingers frantically fighting the rope, even as it burns into his skin, bites deep into the flesh of his neck. Charlotte is there. On the stairs. Watching. She rubs her hands together. Alex’s eyes remain fixed on hers, even as they bulge out from his skull, as their blood vessels burst and begin to trace red rivers across the whites. Alex’s legs kick, knocking over an antique pitcher, breaking an oil lamp, tapping fecklessly on the back of the chaise. Squeezing her hands into fists, she sees Alex has wet himself, and his grey slacks go dark. Blood runs from his nose, down his chin, and he’s opening and closing his mouth as if trying to speak. He reaches out for her with one hand, his body swaying, his bare feet tapping on the load-bearing beam beside him. She’s at the bottom of the stairs now, looking up at him. His fingers shake as he stretches his arm toward her, then claw at her her shoulders as she steps close to him. She smells urine as she wraps her arms around his waist tightly.

            She wakes sucking in a lungful of cool air. She’s had the dream before, but for some reason this feels more real, Alex more present. She almost feels the heft of his body, the damp of his pants against her chest, a ghost she’s dragged with her into the waking world. But as all dreams do, it begins to fade away, sink back into the inky black of her subconscious, and she finds herself once again present, alone in her king size bed. She blinks in the gloom, looks to her right for the comforting green glow of her digital alarm clock. But it’s gone. At least it seems to be.

            She sits up and barely makes out the shapes of her bedroom windows, open to the night. She fell asleep to the rain, the windows open to carry its iron scent across her as she slipped off. But now it’s quiet, the rain has stopped, the night outside the windows is black as sackcloth, and the power is definitely out. She swings her legs out of bed and stands carefully, takes a few tentative steps. She bangs her knee on the nightstand just as she knew she would, curses, and then reaches for the doorway and turns into the hall, feeling her way to the top of the stairs and then down to the landing.

            She finds one of the candles she had ready on the kitchen counter. She completely spaced on setting one beside her bed, but here she finds a new tapered candle vertical in a holder, a book of matches beside it. Well, she didn’t completely bungle things, she thinks, striking a match. In the dim orange glow of the candle, the kitchen encased in amber, she retrieves a glass and pushes it against the refrigerator’s water dispenser. Nothing. Of course. Come on, Charlotte. Time to wake up. She sighs and fills the glass from the tap, drinking greedily.

            She pads into the living room on bare feet, holding the candle in front of her like a Dickens character. She chuckles to herself. A few dying embers in the hearth give off the barest weak glow, dark red like burned skin, refusing to give up the ghost. Charlotte squints out the window, leaning closer until her forehead is pressed against the cool glass. There’s no moon. No stars. No light. The cloud cover must be thick overhead, she thinks, like a mat pulled over the mountain.

            It smells great, she thinks, and then she turns and takes a few steps back toward the kitchen. But. She stops. Listens. She can swear she heard something. She listens, frozen, the candle’s flame splashing flickering nightmares across the wall, stretching shadows into grotesques. There. She hears it again. Something in the woods, maybe. Or down the hill? She goes back to the window, crouches beside it and leans in close to the screen, turning her ear toward the night.

            A cry wafts up at her from somewhere out in the dark. Her hand goes to her throat instinctively, her mouth slack and open. She leans in closer, pusher her ear against the screen. Again the plaintive wail comes to her from afar, pulled apart by distance, an echo of itself. It’s a sheep, she thinks. One of Mary Stein’s sheep got out in the storm, and it’s wandering around in the woods. It’s lost and scared and –

            Closer now. Almost human. But it can’t be. The sheep have gotten out before. She’s found them in her flowers, mowing the perennials down to the ground, chased them off with a broom. Yes, of course that’s what it is. She straightens. Sound does weird things up here. She knows that. It carries. It distorts. By the time it’s run its way through the trees and creek beds, across the meadows, it could be anything. She shakes her head and chuckles. The stillness outside gives way to the slow build of a north wind, and she hears the trees creak and pop, the water blown from their leaves like a fresh shower in itself.

            She pauses at the bottom of the stairs, hearing the sheep’s call again. With the wind picking up, she imagines a new overtone, something frantic. She hears it again and thinks, yes, there’s panic in that. Fear. Then the wind gusts up, and before the rush and roar of the trees drowns it out entirely, Charlotte thinks – just for a moment – it almost sounds like a shriek. It almost sounds like high laughter, shrill and mad. Then she reminds herself just how silly that thought is, stupid, and through the open windows now is only the rustle of leaves, the low howl of the wind through the forest and up the mountain. Charlotte grabs the matches from the kitchen counter, gently holds the matchbook between her teeth, and cups her hand around the candle’s flame as she heads back upstairs. When she wakes three hours later, shortly after dawn, it’s raining again.

            Alex found out about the affair the same way everyone else did. Melissa Eli – shortly before screaming out of town in her Subaru Legacy, leaving broken windows and myriad household debris piled in the yard where it landed – spray painted in black on the side of her  own house, shared until that very moment with her husband of 26 years: “CHARLOTTE FROST IS A HOMERECKOR!!!!!” (sic) in letters two feet tall and slanting slightly downward from left to right. Alex passed by the next morning around 8:00, just as a few neighbors stood at the property line with steaming mugs of coffee watching Roger Eli spill white paint all over his lawn, tripping and fumbling, trying with broad strokes to cover the slanderous graffiti. But as Alex passed, Roger looked over, and their eyes locked, and Alex knew it wasn’t slanderous at all. In that look, in the way Roger’s shoulders slumped and he cast his eyes down, Alex knew it was truth.

            He did not so much as feather the brake. Instead, he turned his head forward again and continued through town, then out past the horse pastures south of the Methodist church, eventually turning left on Highway 155. He returned home at 2:00 pm as planned, carrying the books and notebooks he’d used in his lecture.

            Charlotte waited, silent, in the bedroom as he went into his study, replaced the books on the shelves. She heard him open the top left drawer on his desk, shut it after placing his notebooks neatly inside. She listened as he went to the kitchen, filled a glass with cold water from the refrigerator, stood and drank it, probably gazing out the window to the east, as he often did, across the valley. Then she heard his footsteps slowly climb the stairs, traverse the hallway, approach the door. Her head hung – silent, swaddled in shame – she saw his shoes enter, pause in front of her, then cross again toward the closet. Saying nothing, she watched him pull down a suitcase.

            He set the suitcase on the bed next to where she sat and said, “I think I’ll stay in the barn for awhile.”

            Charlotte’s kicking herself. She pulls open drawer after drawer in the kitchen, but has so far only found two AAA batteries, both crusted with green acid. She dumps them in the trash and puts her hands on her hips. She spaced on this, too, batteries. When was the last time she even thought about buying batteries? The whole world is rechargeable.

            Sure, she has the big backup in Alex’s study, and she can use that to charge her laptop a few times, not that it does any good with the modem and router dark and silent, plugged into outlets with no juice. And she has the travel bricks she bought to charge their phones when they went to Rome in 2019. Even her emergency flashlight is rechargeable – and she topped it off before the storm.

            But now she’s standing in the middle of her kitchen holding a 35-year-old portable radio, its shiny aluminum antenna extended like a child’s hand to god, and she can’t even remember the last time she held a fucking AA, let alone two, let alone new. She goes to the living room, checks the remotes for the television (AAAs, and beginning to crust; she tells herself to make a note to replace them before they burst) and the Apple TV (rechargeable via the same lightning port as her phone, of course). Even her vibrator uses rechargeable lithium ion. Then something strikes her, and she crosses through the dining room.

            She pauses just for one second, then turns the knob, pushes open the door to Alex’s study. It’s on the desk right where she knew it would be, right where it always was and where he left it the last time pushed one of his yellow number twos into it. Charlotte picks up the Sharper Image pencil sharpener, turns it over, says a little prayer to whatever deity happens to be listening, and pops the battery compartment.

            “Gotcha, fuckers,” she says with relish, and plucks the shiny AAs from their nest.

            She tunes in 89.5. The governor has released a statement. Charlotte leans in close. The flooding is bad. Worse even than they expected. Some areas received up to nine inches. The Black River, swollen like a gangrenous limb, has flooded downtown Ludlow with two feet of water. Consumed it. Montpelier’s downtown is under five feet of toxic sludge. The state capitol. On the gas range, her kettle begins to whistle. It’s a scream by the time she kills the heat and pours water into her French press.

            The rain is still coming, maybe even another inch or two before the front moves east. A railroad trestle in Wallingford washed away, leaving the tracks dangling thirty feet up like telephone wires. The Weston Playhouse, mere feet from the river, was inundated. And at Proctorsville, a mudslide has made the highway impassable, possibly for days. Charlotte pours coffee, looks out the window. Still coming down and it’s almost 9:00am. She wonders what will even be left by tomorrow.

            On the radio, we’ve returned to our regularly schedule program, and someone from Pasadena is concerned about wildfires. Charlotte takes her coffee into the living room and pokes at last night’s embers. Cold. She probably should have built it up before bed, but she hadn’t expected the temperature to continue to drop through the night. It’s down to 50 this morning, from the mid-70s yesterday, and with most of the windows open all night, it’s not much warmer inside. She kneels, carefully arranging fresh kindling, pushing aside last night’s ash, while shaking her head at herself. She hadn’t expected this. She hadn’t expected a lot of things.

            By 11:00, the radio has gone softer and softer until finally, as the anchor’s last words distort into a terror of diminishing static, it goes silent. Charlotte’s checked and checked again, and those were the last AAs in the house. Her phone’s fully charged, of course, but there’s no signal. Not even the “SOS” in place of bars that usually comes with dropping off the national network and onto some ancient 2G capable only of emergency calls. Nada. The rain falls steadily; the sky a grey void, formless and infinite.

            At around 2:30 that afternoon, Charlotte wakes from an unintended nap on the couch to a bright fist of sunlight square in the face. She straightens, cracks her back, and then stands and moves to the window. The rain has stopped, and the clouds are beginning to break up, move apart, winnow themselves east like oil in water, leaving behind a brilliant azure sky to the north and directly overhead, so blue it’s almost black, so blue it almost hurts. Charlotte steps into her boots, not bothering to lace them, and pushes through the door into the yard.

            It’s colder still now, but Charlotte turns her face to the sun, squeezing her eyes shut, spreading her arms wide and pushing her chest out toward the mountains like a greeting. Her ears swell with birdsong, her nose fills with the swollen sex of the mountain, musty and ancient. From somewhere far away, she thinks she hears someone calling, shouting. Could be the Yosts down on Paradise Road, she thinks. They’re not 15 yards from the lake, and if it jumped the dam…

            Charlotte tosses two more logs onto the fire and closes the glass door. She slides her phone into her pocket; maybe there will be a signal down the road. She digs through the closet for a coat, and pulls a stocking hat down over her ears for good measure. She certainly hadn’t expected that the second weekend in July. She grabs keys to the truck, laces her boots this time, and heads out the back door. She doesn’t get halfway to the garage before she sees the futility.

            Below the garage, where the driveway begins to curve downhill and to the south, a washout has carved a deep channel. She pushes the truck keys into her back pocket, sighs, and walks down the driveway to survey the damage. It’s only four feet wide, but it’s deep. At least that again, maybe deeper. Four wheel drive isn’t getting anyone over that, not anytime soon. Charlotte looks back at the garage, back up at the house, and then figures since she’s already out here, what the hell.

            A few feet into the trees uphill, before the swollen ditch and the failed culvert she imagines she’ll find washed somewhere downstream in the woods when things dry out enough to look, she’s able to hop across the washout to the other side. Her knees chide her for attempting such a stunt, and she nearly slips in the mud and sends herself backwards into the abyss. Just what she needs right now, cracking her head open on a fieldstone and bleeding out within sight out of the house.

            The last of the clouds has moved on, and the sky is crystalline in its cobalt glory. As she walks down Old Cut road, mostly intact but with a few deep ravines carved by the storm, she realizes she can’t hear a single engine – not a plane or a truck or even one of the backhoes the county surely already has out to work on the major thoroughfares. Other than the crunch of her boots on the wet gravel, she hears no noise made by man. The sounds of nature are almost deafening. Birdcalls, wind-tickled leaves, and all around her the shoosh of running water, the entire mountain’s watershed pouring into larger and larger brooks, streams, creeks, tributaries. The water follows ancient paths; it moves without forethought, without doubt, without guilt. The water is unstoppable, she knows, despite the best laid plans of mice and men. It will find its way home.

            Then from somewhere far off, she thinks she hears voices again. She stops. Listens. Waits. Her ears are overwhelmed with birdsong, with the rush of waters and breath of wind. There it is again. A high call, powerful, cutting through the symphony of the forest. It’s no voice, she knows that. Not human, anyway. It comes again, mangled by the wind, and Charlotte thinks it’s gotten closer. So close she believes she should see something. But there is nothing in the trees, just dappled sunlight, mist rising from the forest litter like spirits. A rooster, she thinks. A storm like that puts everything on edge, shakes up reality. It’s a rooster who doesn’t have any reason to know it’s going on 3:00 in the afternoon. She shakes her head again and walks on.

            Charlotte’s sister came to stay with her in the week before the funeral. Emily drove Charlotte to the funeral home, held her hand and helped answer the awful questions. She cooked for them both, let Birdie out into the yard and fed her morning and evening meals. The phone never rang. No visitors came with casseroles or pies. No meatloaf was delivered, nor condolence cards. Emily knew better than to mention it, to ask, to pry for details. She knew her sister, and just like she always had, she stepped in to take care of her.

            Charlotte spoke little that week, a polite thank you when Emily set a plate before her, another when it was taken away untouched. Grief is an animal, and it hungers. It can be observed, understood, even – in time – tamed. But it has a mind of its own, and it follows an instinct alien to us; it follows ancient paths we’ve never had opportunity to trace. The grief fell over Charlotte like a cloak, heavy, its insidious musk overcoming all other senses. And with it came the guilt, gnawing at her, working at her like floodwaters eroding a riverbank. Poor Alex, a kind, quiet man who had helped a young woman pick up the pieces of her abusive childhood, her wild college years. Sweet Alex who had been patient with her, had sat with her as she cried, gagging on the past, retching up memory. Alex, who had only ever been fair. And kind. And made her feel safe. And she had, what, gotten bored?

            Twin snakes, grief and guilt, coiled around her, pulled themselves tight, cutting off her air, choking out the light. Only Alex’s cousins attended the funeral, a small graveside service at the cemetery south of the village. He was buried beside his parents and a brother who died as a boy. Emily, exhausted, forgot herself on the drive home and took them past Roger Eli’s newly painted house. He sat on the porch, drinking a beer. He lowered as his eyes as they passed.

            “Take Birdie back with you to Chicago,” Charlotte insisted. “She’ll be happier there with kids. A fenced yard.” Emily protested, but Charlotte was firm. “It’s not safe here.”

            She doesn’t even make it to the bottom of the hill. A hundred yards before the final turn that would carry her onto Paradise Road and, eventually, the tarmac that led to civilization, Old Cut simply disappears. Through the meadow on her right, a wall of water seems to have swiped the ground away. She steps to the edge of this new ravine and peers down. It’s at least an eight foot drop, and she can hear the trickle of water in the dark below her.

            How is this even possible, she wonders. It must have been some ancient creek bed plowed over a hundred years ago. But the water remembered. It came home. And now she’s stuck on a mountain for god knows how long. She pulls out her phone and thumbs the screen on. Still no signal. She tries opening Safari, pulling up the Times. Nothing. She scrolls to Emily’s contact card, taps “Call”. Silence, not even the judgmental beep of a failed attempt.

            She pushes the phone back into her pocket, puts her hands on her hips, stares across the yawning six feet between her and – what? Another road? Who even knew if Paradise Road was intact. Hell, the highways were impassable this morning, said the radio, and the backroads of Carversville must be pretty far down the county road crew’s list of priorities. And if they were, so what? Was she going to go knock on doors and make sure everyone was all right? She’d probably get rocks thrown at her from second floor bedrooms. Tomatoes. She almost chuckles. The live music on the village green is probably cancelled this week. Ain’t that a shame for the good folks of Carversville. Now she does chuckle, thinking of the Neil Young covers no one gets to hear. She turns back to the one mile uphill climb she has ahead of her to the house. At least, she thinks, it stopped raining.

            At 5:00 the sky goes yellow, then purple, then black. Then the rain returns.

            Charlotte hadn’t thought to download any music, so she’s on her knees listening for the third time to the one U2 record on her phone, using the fireplace tongs to turn the foil-wrapped potato she’s pushed into a womb of embers, when a window upstairs explodes. At least that’s what it sounds like. She’s startled so badly she drops the tongs, which rattle and clang on the brick of the outer hearth. She hears the fierce howl of wind and runs upstairs.

            It’s in the guest room, where the two twin beds are now covered in broken glass. Both panes of the swinging windows have burst inward. Shards of glass, splinters of wood cover the room, the furniture, the floor. The curtain flails wildly, and sheets of rain reach greedily through the fanged black mouth of the broken window. Flashes of lightning throw horrors of trees into momentarily relief against the night. Charlotte pulls the door closed; there’s not much she can do about that window now. It must have been a pressure wave, the wind must have –

            Behind her, another window blows in, this time in the bathroom. She goes to pull shut the door, seeing in a flash of lightning the bathtub filled with broken glass. But there’s something else. She walks carefully, feeling her way in the dark, her boots crunching glass on the floor, and puts her hands against the window frame. Rain spatters her face, icy needles, but she waits. And in another flash she sees – but it’s impossible – she thinks she sees water, out past the garage, not just coursing but – it can’t be – standing. Standing water. But that driveway, and then Old Cut Road, that’s all downhill for a mile, then another mile down and around the wide base of the mountain to the village and the lake.

            Should have kept the kayaks, she thinks and tries to laugh. It doesn’t work.

            She pulls the door to the bathroom closed, then the other doors upstairs to her bedroom and the sewing room. The storm front must have brought with it a low pressure system, and these old windows – but they’d blown in. Not out. The windows had blown in. She’s at the bottom of the stairs, reaching for the burning candle she left on the kitchen island when the glass over the sink splinters into shards and blows across the kitchen like a shotgun blast. A few shards whip past her hand, leave deep grooves in her flesh, embed in her palm. She pulls her hand back as the candle is blown out and away, and in another flash of lightning she sees canyons carved into her hand as if it, like the candle, is made of wax. She wraps the bottom of her coat around it and turns to drop the three stairs into the living room, but in another flash she sees a gallery of faces at the broken kitchen window, their mouths drawn long, gaping black, toothless and hungry. Their eyes sunken hollows, lifeless cavities rimmed with sickly, split flesh.

            She screams, she can’t help it, and trips on the last stair into the living room, sending herself sprawling in the dark onto the floor. She hits an end table and something smashes to the floor beside her. Their faces, god, their faces. But that’s impossible, too, isn’t it? Of course it is. She crawls to the fire, whipped into a vortex by the wind, twisting up past the flue, roaring like a caged animal. She unwraps her hand, holds it close to the light of the fire. The deep grooves darken and then fill with blood, and she hurriedly wraps it again. She feels her way back into the kitchen, hunched against the howling wind, and pulls a hand towel from its hook by the sink. She keeps her head down as she moves back toward the living room, toward the relative safety of the fire, but still she hears their voices.

            Whore, they hiss as Charlotte falls upon the couch, wrapping the towel around around her hand; in the flickering light of the fire, her blood blooms black through the towel. Slut, they seethe through the fire’s roar as Charlotte pulls blankets off the back of the couch down onto her, pulls her knees up to her chest, buries her face. Killer, they chant with the pulse of the rain, the rolling thunder, the crack and snap and sharp report of something breaking.

            Charlotte wakes she’s not sure when. It’s dark, humid. Her mind slowly floats back to her, surfacing, and she pushes the blankets down, squinting against the light. She sees her ceiling, and something about its perfect ordinariness strikes her as profoundly heartbreaking. Then a cloud floats overhead. But it’s not a cloud. She purses her lips and exhales from deep in her chest. Her breath puffs out, drifting up and away. She rubs her eyes, then pulls herself up with one arm on the back of the couch, swinging her feet over onto the floor –

            And into an inch of water. She looks down, incredulous. Is she still dreaming? The nightmare from last night, chapter two, the sequel’s on the water to up the stakes. But no, she’s awake. And a calm pool of still water lies serenely across the first floor of her house like a float of Grand Marnier. She sloshes to the window in her boots, blankets wrapped around her shoulders, and wipes away the condensation. Her mountain is underwater. She is on an island. The uncanny sea laps at the side of the house. She sees ripples, small waves, extending out to where a fog bank swallows the horizon. The tops of trees poke out from the placid surface, shrubs on some nightmare mirror. The mountains rise from the water like an archipelago, Mount Agnes its fulcrum. She looks around the room. The last few charred bits of log float near the coffee table, the fireplace flooded.

            Charlotte goes upstairs to the bedroom, pulls a suitcase down from the closet. She sets it on the bed and pulls open her drawers, throwing underwear, socks, thermals, sweaters into the suitcase. She has to put it on the floor and kneel on it to get it latched. Into a backpack she drops her toothbrush, toothpaste, a roll of toilet paper. She layers: t-shirt, long underwear, sweater, jacket. She pulls the stocking hat down over her ears again. It’s the second week of July. She pulls on wool socks, laces her boots tight against the water.

            She steps out the front door and looks across the flat plane of the new inland sea. It’s beautiful despite itself. Sunlight casts fireworks upon the surface. Charlotte stands for a moment, notes the sky darkening to the west, the wall of the next storm front gathering, planning, plotting, scheming. Then she’s dragging her suitcase through the water, trudging uphill once more to the barn, higher ground, her last safe place.


Jacob Strunk has been short-listed for both a Student Academy Award and the Pushcart Prize in fiction, as well as the Glimmer Train short story award and a New Rivers Press book prize. His films have screened in competition and by invitation across the world, and his genre-bending fiction has appeared in print for over twenty years, most recently in Coffin BellFive on the Fifth, and his collection Screaming in Tongues, published in early 2023. He earned his MFA in creative writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program and teaches film and media in Los Angeles, where he lives with a few framed movie posters and the ghost of his cat, Stephen.