Thursday, September 15, 2016

The First Storm of Spring, Part 4 (New Short Story)

Here is Part 4 of The First Storm of Spring. If you haven't read Part 3 yet, you can find it here.
And if you're ready to go, Part 4 starts now…
The First Storm of Spring
By Catherine Mesick
Garrett stood for several moments uncertain what to do.
He didn’t want to fire up the staff for fear that Subee was nearby and would get hurt.
But standing still was agony—as was the fact that he could see and hear very little of what was around him.
And then he saw it.
Just beyond the haze that surrounded him, Garrett could see a twisting mass up in the air floating toward him. It was vast and dark and shot through with faint hints of sickly green light. At the same time, Garrett could feel a chill creeping around him, wrapping around his body.
Subee had said that he wouldn’t be able to see the evil spirits, but he had a feeling that that was exactly what he was looking at.
Garrett stood transfixed, watching the dark green mass as it rotated slowly in front of him. The mass was surely too big to fit inside the house, and as Garrett watched it, a disturbance seemed to roil it from within. Smaller masses spun themselves off from the larger one and floated beside it, twisting and writhing on their own.
Garrett squinted at the new masses, trying to make out what was going on, and he could see within them flashes of what looked like claws and teeth. After another few moments he could see what looked like long tendrils of hair that fluttered as if supported in a breeze. There were flashes of eyes, too, and Garrett could see that the strange creatures appeared to be bound together by some invisible force at their middles.
The evil spirits seemed to be woven together in bundles.
The bundles suddenly shot off on their own, leaving the larger mass behind, and Garrett was jolted out of his reverie.
He could feel that the air around him had grown significantly colder, and he was startled to see his own breath escaping his lips in little puffs of vapor.
Garrett quickly swung his staff around and sent a jet of flame through the fire barrier toward the large, twisting mass before him.
The mass reacted instantly, and it rumbled ominously with a tremor that Garrett could feel rather than hear. The air around him suddenly grew warmer, and he swung the staff around his head and brought it down toward the mass again, sending another jet of flame rolling over it.
Suddenly, he felt a blast of cold air at his side, and he turned to see one of the spirit bundles floating close to the barrier, reaching its many claws out toward him.
Garrett quickly trained his staff on the floating bundle.
The entangled spirits recoiled as a jet of flame rolled over them, and out of the corner of his eye, Garrett could see another spirit bundle fast approaching from the other side.
He hurried to fend off the new bundle with a fiery blast, and no sooner had he done so than he felt another wave of cold wash over his back.
Garrett realized Subee was right: the best way to combat the evil spirits was to walk around the perimeter of the barrier, sending out jets of flame as fast as he could to ward off as many evil spirits as possible.
And so Garrett got to work, patrolling the barrier with the great source flame at his back—attacking spirit bundles when he saw them and just barraging the immediate area with fire when he did not.
The temperature inside the barrier soon became insufferably hot, and Garrett’s hair and clothes became drenched with sweat.
He took that as a sign that things were going well.
Soon his whole world became fire and effort, and Garrett lost sight of everything else.
But as he worked, he gradually became aware of the central mass still hovering and roiling outside the barrier. Garrett couldn’t always see the mass depending on where he was standing, but every time he did pass it, he noticed that it never seemed to grow any smaller. In fact, it actually seemed to be getting bigger.
Garrett began to wonder if something was wrong.
He couldn’t see any sign of Subee, and he couldn’t see any sign of the house, or the storm, for that matter. All he could see was the fire he guarded and the masses of spirits that waited to attack.
Garrett began to scan the outer darkness for any sign of Subee. But she was invisible to his eyes.
Fear soon stole over him, and he lowered his staff. He needed to find out what had happened to her.
Garrett hesitated for just a moment, and then he threw himself across the barrier to the outer world.
He immediately wished he hadn’t done so.
On the other side of the barrier, a storm raged, and Garrett could see nothing but the heavy, driving rain and hear nothing but the howling of the wind. Even the evil spirits had disappeared. And the fire that Garrett had guarded seemed to have been swallowed up by the storm.
He felt a flash of panic, and he quickly glanced up at his staff. But Garrett saw to his amazement that the plume of fire at the top still shone and flared brightly, and rather than being quenched by the rain, the flame had actually created a barrier against it—it was the only reason, in fact, that he was able to see anything at all.
And as Garrett listened to the fierce raging of the wind, it occurred to him that the flame was protecting him from that, too. Otherwise, the powerful hurricane should have flung him through the air.
But Subee was nowhere to be seen, and Garrett had completely lost sight of the central fire. And though he knew he should find it and go back to guarding it, he also knew he couldn’t do that.
He would press on until he found Subee.
Garrett plunged forward into the storm.
At first he saw nothing, and then he stumbled badly as his feet left level ground and ran up against an incline. Garrett remembered that there was a small hill in the lot behind Subee’s house, and that a huge pile of old cypress trees downed in previous storms had been dragged up there to get them out of the way. The resulting pile had made the little hill into something of a town high spot, and Garrett quickly scrambled up the hill and began to climb the heap of old trees.
The cypress trees were gnarled and tangled and heavily soaked with rain. Branches and bark came away in Garrett’s hands, and he had to keep shifting the fire staff so as not to drop it. He lost his footing once or twice, too, on the slick trees, but at last he came to stand unsteadily at the top of the pile.
Garrett held the staff high over his head, trying to create as much space to see as he could. The fire created an arc around him, completely shielding his face and body, and he looked out into the storm from his perch. But all he could see was a solid wall of gray, driving rain.
Garrett turned slowly in a circle, peering intently into the murk, and as he did so, he caught a quick flash of orange—a faint spark—out in the seemingly endless gloom. The spark disappeared as quickly as it had come, but Garrett was sure that he had seen it.
He scrambled back down the slick hill of trees and mud and headed straight toward the spot where he had seen the spark.
The way ahead was a solid wall of dark gray, but Garrett was sure of his direction.
He trudged on through the violent wind and rain, and the spark did not reappear.
And then he heard a low roar—it was different from the howling of the wind and somehow profoundly below it—as if it came from a depth that was impossible to plumb.
Garrett hurried toward it.
After a moment, he passed through a bank of fog, and he was startled to find the ground beneath his feet was now dry. The buffeting from the elements had also died down, and as Garrett looked around, he realized that the great central mass of spirits—the one that had spun off all the others—was looming over his head, slowly rotating and shot through with faint flashes of a sickly greenish light.
No wind or rain broke through the mass of spirits, and the mass seemed to have created a bank of fog all around itself like a border—the fog was slowly rotating along with the mass, and it gave every appearance of having been drawn out of the storm by the mass itself.
Something squelched under foot, and Garrett looked down to see what looked like a heap of brown seaweed. He looked around and saw more of the brown heaps—they seemed to fall strangely into a line.
Garrett followed the line of seaweed heaps, and the trail led him to a tall column of dark cloud that rose all the way up into the mass of spirits—small sparks were shooting out of it.
Garrett rushed forward and plunged into the cloud.
Inside was a hollow space, and he found Subee standing in the middle of it. She was holding her fire staff in one hand.
As Garrett watched, she plunged the staff into the cloud above and then pulled out a section of it, which trailed around the staff like wisps of gray silk. Then with one swift motion, she threw the section of cloud to the ground and quickly captured it under her foot. As soon as she did so, the section of cloud turned into a small bundle of spirits.
The bundle’s many claws scratched at her feet, and its many eyes flashed angrily, but Subee calmly brought the fiery end of the staff down on the bundle.
As the flames engulfed the little writhing mass, it disintegrated, leaving a heap that looked like brown seaweed.
As the spirit bundle collapsed completely, Garrett thought he saw the barest hint of green vapor rise up into the air and dissipate.
Subee reached up with her staff and pulled out another section of cloud, and though her face looked calm as she did so, Garrett could see that she was actually trapped herself.
A segment of cloud trailed down from the main body above and wound around her arm, effectively holding it in place, frozen by her side.
Several more segments trailed down and had hold of her long, red hair, making it difficult for Subee to turn her head, and Garrett saw with horror that a new trail of cloud was descending and snaking rapidly toward her.
This one was heading for her neck.
Garrett ran forward and turned his fire staff at the segment of cloud, sending out only a thin tendril of flame for fear of burning Subee.
Garrett watched, relieved, as the trail of cloud quickly withdrew, and he swiftly turned the bright flame on the other trails of cloud that held Subee’s hair and arm. Soon she was free, and she whirled around to face Garrett.
But before she could say anything, the cloud around them seemed to gather itself. Suddenly, two thick trails of cloud shot out. Garrett watched in horror as one of the trails wrapped around Subee and lifted her off the ground.
Before he could react, the second trail wrapped around Garrett, and he, too, was lifted off his feet. Moments later, he was flying through the air, and he hit the ground heavily.
It seemed to Garrett that he must have lost consciousness, for he was suddenly aware of the fact that he was awake, and he couldn’t figure out exactly where he was.
And then he felt the cold, hard ground beneath him, and he saw hazily above him a large rotating mass shot through with green.
Garrett tried to sit up, but he found that he couldn’t move.
“Subee,” he whispered.
As if that one word had summoned her, Subee suddenly appeared in his line of view. Her face was hovering near his, and he could see that she had two metal sticks that were topped with fire.
Garrett recalled that he had had a stick like that once, too.
“You would have been safe inside the circle,” Subee said. “Why didn’t you stay there?”
“I couldn’t see you,” Garrett said. “I had to find out what happened to you.”
Garrett smiled. “I knew when I first saw you that there was no one else like you.”
“There is no one else like me,” Subee said quietly.
“I know,” Garrett said. “And that’s the very best thing about you.”
Subee stared at Garrett for a long moment, and he found himself staring back into her dark, unreadable eyes.
Soon all he could see were those eyes, and it seemed to him that within their depths was all of eternity.
Subee drew back abruptly, and she swung one of the fire sticks around in front of her. Then in one swift motion, she pressed the fiery end against his arm. Pain tore through him, and Garrett smelled something that he feared was the scent of his own flesh burning.
A moment later, Subee disappeared.
Garrett managed to raise his arm, and he stared at the thick black patch of charred skin that Subee had given him with her burning staff.
Another wave of pain rolled over him, and he let his arm fall back to the ground.
Soon Garrett saw a bright ball of flame hovering in the air, and for just a moment, he thought he saw Subee standing in the middle of it whirling both fire sticks in a circle over her head.
Then Subee vanished from sight, and all Garrett could see was wave after wave of fire rolling off that central ball of flame.
The waves kept coming, and Garrett could feel their deadly heat. Soon everything around him was fire, and even the great twisting mass of spirits with its eerie green lights disappeared—it seemed to have been completely consumed by the fire that now roared in his ears.
The fire kept coming, and soon Garrett’s entire body was engulfed in flame.
There was no longer any pain for him—just unbearable heat and heavy pressure on his chest that made it impossible to breathe.
The whole world was alight—there was only brightness and heat and suffocation. When Garrett closed his eyes, he knew that he had become flame.

At some point Garrett’s eyes opened. All he could see was darkness. He had a memory of flames, and he moved suddenly, trying to escape them.
But his body was pinned firmly down, and Garrett found that he couldn’t move at all. Even his fingers seemed weighed down by an invisible force.
Soon he heard shouts—voices of other human beings nearby—and he tried to call out to them. But Garrett found that his voice was as frozen as his body.
“There’s a big section of wall over there,” cried a voice. “We should try moving that.”
“There’s also a big piece of roof over by his car,” cried another voice. “He could have taken shelter under that.”
Garrett chuckled to himself. So that was why he couldn’t move—a house had fallen on him.
“Mark my words,” said a third voice. “We’ll never find him. He was swept into the swamp—and the swamp keeps her own.”
“Come on,” said the first voice. “Come over here and help me move this.”
“You won’t find anything,” said the third voice. “We haven’t found anything yet.”
“Just help me move this.”
Garrett felt the heavy pressure on him shift just a bit. Then it began to slide sideways. The feeling was more than a little disorienting in the darkness.
“I see a foot!” cried one of the voices. “Get this thing moving! I see a foot!”
The sliding continued, and soon Garrett felt a pleasantly cool breeze swirling around him. More sliding brought light filtering down to him, and before long, Garrett found himself staring up at a tranquil, blue sky.
Remembering the fire, Garrett swiftly put his hands up to his face. But his skin felt healthy and unburned—gone, too, was the pain.
“We found him, boys!” said a voice that Garrett now recognized as belonging to Sheriff Walt. “Let’s get that ambulance over here and get him out of there.”
Soon Garrett was in an ambulance riding back to the hospital. He had surprised and alarmed everyone by sitting up and climbing out of the depression he’d been wedged into under his own power. All of his rescuers had urged him to be careful and to sit back down, but Garrett had stood with them and chatted amiably until the ambulance had arrived.
Then he’d climbed into the ambulance, much to the amazement of the EMIs, and he’d sat down on the stretcher before they’d even had a chance to wheel it out.
The sheriff had climbed into the back along with him and had sat down on a small bench that lined one wall.
As the ambulance moved off, the sheriff leaned back and ran his hands over his face. Then he leaned forward and set them on his knees.
“You were lucky,” Sheriff Walt said.
“I know,” Garrett said.
“No—you were really lucky,” the sheriff said. “You got wedged in between two sturdy sections of concrete, and over that was laid what I thought was a piece of wall—but it was actually a piece of the big, flat roof from the post office. The concrete kept you from going anywhere, and it was high enough to catch the section of roof and keep it from crushing you. And then the roof prevented anything else from falling on you. You had a perfect little storm cage there.”
Sheriff Walt looked at him sharply. “And there’s not a mark on you.”
Garrett said nothing. He could still remember how the flames had engulfed him, and he didn’t have any idea how he’d survived that.
“What were you doing out there anyway?” Sheriff Walt asked.
Garrett glanced up at him in surprise. “You sent me out to find Subee and bring her to a shelter if she hadn’t left.”
He felt a sharp pang as he thought of Subee. He remembered now how she had left him.
“Subee?” Sheriff Walt said. “Subee who?”
“Subee Cantor. She’s the only Subee in town.”
“I don’t know any Subee,” the sheriff said.
“Of course you do,” Garrett said. “Everybody knows Subee. You know, Snake Lady? But people shouldn’t call her that. It’s really not fair.”
Sheriff Walt shook his head. “I know everybody in town, and I don’t know any Subee.”
He stood and knocked on the window that overlooked the ambulance’s cab. The window promptly slid open.
“Either of you fellas know a Subee Cantor?” the sheriff asked.
“Subee?” said the driver.
“Yeah,” said the sheriff.
The driver shook his head. “No.”
He glanced over at his seatmate who replied the same way.
“That’s what I thought,” the sheriff said. “Thanks, boys.”
The window slid closed again, and the sheriff sat down in his seat.
“I see what’s going on now,” Sheriff Walt said, glancing at Garrett, and Garrett thought he could see relief in his boss’s eyes. “You didn’t get out completely unscathed. You’ve suffered some head trauma—possibly had some hallucinations. I’m sure it all seemed very real to you. But I can assure you that there’s nothing to worry about.”
Sheriff Walt’s voice had grown kindly and paternal.
“You’re good man, Garrett, and I’m not surprised that your hallucinations would take the form of someone you had to rescue.”
His eyes darted to Garrett’s arm.
“When did you get a tattoo?”
Garrett looked down at his arm and then turned it over.
On his forearm up by his elbow was a gold leaf—it looked just like the mark that Subee had had on her own arm.
Garrett ran his fingers over the mark lightly.
“She said it would protect her from the storm,” he said.
“What was that?” Sheriff Walt asked.
“Subee gave it to me,” Garrett said. “She left her mark on me.”
“I see,” Sheriff Walt said, and he smiled as if he were humoring a young child.
“I had a feeling about her once,” Garrett said.
“You had a feeling about this Subee?” the sheriff asked.
“Yes,” Garrett said. “I had a feeling about her, and I turned out to be right.”
“And what does that mean?” the sheriff asked.

Garrett smiled. “It means I have a feeling she’ll be back.”
Thanks very much for reading!

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