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Fiction Third Place

“Storms of Time,”

by Bruce Krug

            Her back pressed against the base of a scraggly windblown pine tree, Rachel let out a wail born of fear and loss. The howling winds of the dying nor’easter carried the cry away unheard. The infant in Rachel’s lap never stirred.

            Like a cork pulled from a bottle, that first wail of anguish released a flood. Chest heaving, Rachel emptied her soul in hitching sobs until she slumped from exhaustion. She wiped at her face with the back of one hand and was surprised to find her cheeks dry. The wind had dried the tears from her face. The same wind that had swept away her cries of despair. The same wind that had delivered her into despair.

             She was now alone in the world. Well, nearly alone. She looked down at the infant sleeping in the cocoon formed by the folds of her tattered skirt. The blue was gone from Isaiah’s lips and cheeks, his tiny face now a ruddy pink. The relief Rachel wanted to feel would not come. How was she to care for the child?

            Lifting her head, peering out through the waving blades of dune grass, Rachel could see the remains of the ship some fifty yards beyond the foaming surf. The broken vessel leaned heavily to one side. The topsail on the one remaining mast still billowed; ignorant its work was done.

            Their family of three had been sailing from Norfolk to Philadelphia. Nathan had insisted the voyage would be easier by ship than wagon or carriage. Though she feared the water, Rachel had accepted her husband’s decision. She hadn’t wanted their new life to begin on an argument.

            A shiver ran across her shoulders as she remembered the shudder that had run through the ship. Rachel had first thought it more of the thunder that had been rending the air for an eternity. Then she had heard the splintering of wood. Sailors, shouting frantically, had swarmed past her like rats running from a fire. Behind them the captain bellowed louder than the roaring wind.

            “Strike the sails!”

            Lightning forked out of the sky and Rachel had seen the line of rocks glisten like black jewels.

            “If ever there was a place men ought to erect a lighthouse ‘tis at the tip of this accursed breakwater,” the captain had growled.

            Abandoning all semblance of order, the sailors had taken axes to the halyards. Despite their urgent work the canvas hadn’t fallen fast enough. Wedged in the rocks with her hull breeched, the ship had listed under the weight of the rain soaked sails.

            From her shelter near the hatchway leading to the lower decks, Rachel had watched one of the fallen spars trip her husband up and sweep him across the deck. She swore she had heard the crack of his head on the rail before he had tumbled into the sea.

            Moments later rough hands had forced Rachel and her baby into a lifeboat. The boat had broken free before a sailor could join them. With no oarsman, the boat had been tossed about by the heaving sea. Somehow Rachel had managed to hold onto Isaiah with one hand while gripping the side of the boat with the other.

            After a wild ride the boat had bottomed where breakers pounded the shore. Wrapping Isaiah in her skirt and holding him to her breast, Rachel had made a three point crawl to shore amidst broken shells and sucking water. Once free of the ocean she so feared, she had stumbled as far as the dunes before collapsing.

***

            Ssssssssss. CRACK!  Silver white light flashed through the wall of insulated glass. Joshua jumped. His paintbrush clattered to the floor. Pulling a deep breath, he whispered a prayer of thanks to the gods of fortune that his brush hadn’t been poised over the canvas.

            To have had to rework the painting now… Joshua shivered at the thought of it.

             He had begun the painting two days ago, on the first winds on an approaching hurricane, attacking the scene of a storm ravaged ship with a vengeance. His meals for the past forty-six hours had consisted of Pop-tarts, Oreos, and two liter bottles of soda. He’d catnapped on the futon in the corner of his studio, returning immediately to the painting when his eyes opened.

            He didn’t know what compelled him to paint this particular scene, but he did know that if he didn’t finish it now he never would. He was working to capture the tumultuous weather beyond the wall of glass. Muted lemon-lime light was leaking through purple-black clouds and reflecting off the choppy blue-green water below. The blend produced an otherworldly hue that Joshua knew he could never recreate from memory.

            On the table behind him a dozen squeezed and wrinkled tubes of oil paints gave testament to Joshua’s efforts thus far. The burnt umber, Rousseau green, manganese violet, and cadmium red were nearly empty. Joshua hoped he had more stashed in the storage cabinets.  He certainly wasn’t going to be able to buy any. The city of Lewes was deserted.

            Twice a policeman had come to Joshua’s door insisting Joshua comply with the mandatory evacuation. Twice Joshua had sternly refused and hurried back to his painting, passing the television in the living room where spectacled, somber faced, hurricane experts warned of impending doom. The only inconvenience Joshua had suffered was his wife’s delayed return from Oregon.

            BOOM!  Thunder shook the house. The plate glass windows rattled in their frames. Joshua bent to retrieve the horsehair paintbrush. He swiped at the paint splatters on the hardwood floor with a turpentine saturated rag. Beneath his fingertips, he felt the humming of the pilings that supported the house.

            Rising from his crouch, Joshua noticed spots of gray where the paintbrush had hit his riding breeches. Pulling the one leg of his breeches free from his leather boot, he blotted the paint with the same rag he had used on the floor. Making a mental note to take his pants to the cleaners, Joshua realized he hadn’t even changed clothes since racing home from the riding stables two days ago.

            A subtle brightening in the room kicked Joshua’s pulse into double time. The clouds were thinning and he hadn’t yet duplicated that purplish lime sky. Near frantic, he grabbed a new brush and returned to work. Twenty minutes later his left ring finger cramped. The paintbrush again slipped from his grip. Joshua kicked the brush from underfoot and grabbed yet another. As though this brush was Joshua’s lucky charm, the clouds on the canvas seemed to gather of their own accord around the ship with the single mast.

            When he finally let his shoulders droop, Joshua stepped back with a satisfied grunt. He had captured the eerie light as was well as anyone could. He moved off to the left for a different angle and nearly tripped over his own booted feet. In the foreground of the painting, just to the right of the wrecked ship, was a bedraggled woman.

            Reaching blindly behind him, Joshua found the futon just before his knees gave out. He stared up at the woman in the painting. He had no recollection of working her into the scene. Portraits were not his forte yet he had captured heartbreaking anguish in the woman’s expression. How could he not remember doing that? 

            His worry was insufficient to overcome his exhaustion. Joshua carried the woman in tattered skirts into his dreams.

            When he woke Joshua discovered the clouds had won back the sky. Getting shakily to his feet he crossed to the windowed wall and stared out over the harbor formed by the mile-long stone breakwater. His eye followed the wall of stones from the squat lighthouse at the outer tip back to where the stones met the shore. His breath caught in his throat. On the storm ravaged beach beyond his window stood the woman in his painting.

            His pulse rat-tat-tatting a staccato beat, Joshua raced for the stairs. He snatched his overcoat from the coat tree by the front door and shrugged himself into it. Out of habit he studied his reflection in the foyer mirror. One corner of his mouth twisted upward. The coat was a two piece affair with a cloak covering the shoulders. Between the coat, his riding breeches, and his boots, he looked like a colonial gentleman. Nancy, his wife, would have approved.

            Leaving the door open behind him, Joshua set out across the string of wooden planks that bridged the dunes. The howling wind swept his auburn air from his face and forced him to lean into a hobbling run.

***

            Ripping loose the bottom of her torn skirt, Rachel wrapped Isaiah and got to her feet. She would head further inland. Certainly there would be someone willing to help her. There had to be.

            Because she had lost her shoes Rachel picked her way carefully through the rough grasses. She nearly shrieked after stepping on the overturned remains of something that looked to have crawled out of a nightmare.   Struggling to retain her composure, she took three rapid strides past the decaying creature then paused to determine the easiest path forward.

            When she spotted the running man, Rachel couldn’t decide whether to wave for his attention or drop back down into the long grass. Frozen in indecision she watched the man grow closer. When he was near enough to see his features, Rachel nearly dropped her baby. Her dear husband had somehow survived.

            She guessed Nathan must have found something to cling to after going over the side of the ship. He might even have seen Rachel set off in the lifeboat. Her little boat might have swept right past him. She shivered at the thought.

            When he reached shore himself, Nathan would have seen the lifeboat and gone in search of his wife and son. In the darkness of the cursed storm he might have passed mere yards from Rachel and not known. Had he been searching all this time? Of course he had.

            “Nathan!” Rachel shouted, waving her free arm. “Nathan, over here!”

***

            Joshua saw the woman waiving at him. She looked to be shouting too, but if she was the words were carried away by the wind. He nearly stumbled when he saw she carried a baby. Either the woman was crazy or in real trouble. He slowed his pace. If she was crazy…

            He pushed that line of thought away. He needed to know who this woman was. Fighting the wind, he hurried on. He was struggling for breath when he finally reached her.

            Before Joshua could say a word the woman grabbed his shoulder and drew him close, squeezing the baby between them.

            “I thought never to see you again,” she said. “How did you survive?”

            Joshua pulled back from her grip. “Survive?”

            The woman gestured toward the water.

            Joshua followed her pointing finger. His jaw dropped seconds before the rest of his body did.  Out at the end of the breakwater, out where there should have been a brown lighthouse, sat a broken ship with a single mast and a single sail.

            “How?” Joshua choked.

            The woman knelt beside him. “You do not remember? I am sure it will come back to you. Please do not fret. What is important is that we are all together.”

            A cold dread filled Joshua. He turned to look back the way he had come. The few low rooftops that were visible didn’t resemble anything he had seen before.

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