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The day of the storm had been uneventful so when thunderstorm warnings began crawling across the bottom of her TV screen, Sarah didn’t pay a lot of attention. She thought about looking out her window, but she had just recently sat down to watch an old movie – Swamp Thing with the woman who played Joanie on some sitcom – and wasn’t interested enough to get up. It was already dark outside anyways, so it would be difficult to see the rain. She turned the fan off for a moment but didn’t hear anything, so she figured the forecasters were probably wrong again, turning the fan back on.
As the campy film reached its obvious conclusion and the heroine pleaded with the creature – her ex-husband, a scientist now turned into a hideous but kind monster – to allow her to live out her life in the swamp with him, the world outside began to sound like a war zone. Some of the blasts of thunder were loud enough to vibrate her windows. “I guess the weather guys were right after all,” she mused to herself.
She went over to the French doors that led to a second floor balcony, and thought about opening them. She often loved to watch the fierce power of thunderstorms roaring through the alleys in her carriage house/home beside the Ohio River. She reveled in standing inside the doors safe and secure while nature raged outside. But when Sarah peaked outside, the walls of water coming down sideways in the light of a streetlamp made her take a step backwards.
Remembering she had left a window open in the front of the house she decided to check it. The parlor was dim but she was very familiar with the position of the table and chairs and could feel her way around towards the open window. There was no one else except her living in the apartment, so everything was exactly as she had left it. Years ago her small home had been filled with people coming and going – people alive and ghosts as well – but now everything remained quietly in place. The only eyes watching her cross the room were the painted eyes of the small china figurines she kept safely locked behind glass doors in their oak cabinets.
When she had first moved into the Victorian-era carriage house two decades ago, it had been filled with spirits. There was a girl who kept herself in what was now a storage room who would occasionally ask, “Have you heard about what happened to Rebecca?” Sarah kept wanting to be brave and tell the spirit ‘No’ – but every time she tried, the words got caught in her throat.
The man who rented the one-room apartment downstairs next to the garage sometimes complained about the noise of dancing footsteps coming from her apartment when she was not at home. Candles would be taken out of holders and placed on the dining room table, carefully laid out in a long line. A music box could be heard coming from the guest bedroom occasionally that would stop playing if she peaked inside.
Sarah had often reminded herself that spirits were a common part of a section of town as long-standing as the six-blocks around her. Many lives had been lived-out in these rooms and in the houses around her, at least eight generations.
By now things had settled down, as had her life after retirement. Approaching the window, the old woman could see the lace curtains were billowing into the room although no rain was coming in, which was good. She would close the window and return to her television, allowing the storm to roll through without her watching.
But before she could reach the window she heard something that captured her curiosity. It was the sound of a man and woman talking and laughing, their voices at times overpowered by the booming of the thunder and the rage of the sheets of water pouring through the trees. She looked out and didn’t see anyone. The courtyard between her home and the Victorian mansion in front was quickly becoming a pond because of the amount of rainfall hitting the ground.
There it was again…people laughing and talking. She looked towards the sound. It seemed to be coming from a set of wooden outside stairs, meant to be used as a fire-escape. It was difficult to see the shaded figures in the grayness of the evening and through the sheets of water. Suddenly a motion caught her eye. A hand was raised on the stairs as though someone was sitting there smoking perhaps, which was obviously impossible in what had become a deluge. Lightning lit up the courtyard making it impossible to see for a moment, the blast of thunder following immediately. The storm was upon them and still, when her eyes had a moment to adjust to the darkness again, she could she a man and a woman sitting on the stairs laughing on the fire-escape next door, roaring veils of water falling over them.
It was unbelievable to Sarah, unimaginable. Who would be stupid enough to stay out in this storm with the lightning crashing around them?
Against her better judgment, Sarah suddenly shouted out to the pair, “Get inside! Get out of the storm!”
Just as suddenly, the frolicking stopped. The cloudy figures on the steps seemed to stand and look around, searching for the origin of the voice.
“Get out of the storm!” she shouted again. “You’re going to get killed!”
Sarah could feel the pair look up at her, more than she saw them do it. They knew that she was there, watching them. She stepped back from the window into the darkness, regretting her outburst – but maybe now they would go inside where it was safe.
The man and woman burst out laughing, sitting back down, and returning to their careless conversation. And then, with the height of the fury of storm raging around her, in the grayness between flashes of lighting, she saw them: a dozen spirits brought into the turmoil of the night perhaps because of the sheer force of the storm. They stood laughing in the courtyard in costumes from the roaring twenties and the civil war and military uniforms from the Great War, talking with each other as though in happy reunion. Perhaps these ghosts were always there or perhaps only the storm’s fury could allow them to filter through the barrier between the worlds of the quick and the dead.
The old woman felt her knees give out as she shrank to the floor, covering her eyes, shivering in a corner of the dark room. She sat there for no longer than a minute, waiting for the spirits voices to stop filtering in through the open window, when she noticed the conversations were much nearer – practically on top of her. Sarah pulled her legs in with her trembling arms, trying to become as small as she could, huddled there in the dark while a party from another time thrust itself into her dining room, ghastly figures whirling to the tunes of a frenzied ghostly fiddle.
That was where she was when her daughter called her later that night. Sarah finally opened her eyes to find everything was as she had left it, the kindly china figurines still watching the room from behind their glass doors.
Huddled in the corner, well after the storm had passed, she was still shaking from whatever she might have seen or not seen - but now she stood up, walking towards her cell phone. Her daughter’s voice was soothing, offering her fragile mind a pathway back from the spirit world she seemed to have momentarily gotten lost inside of.
“Yes,” Sarah whispered into the phone, “I must have fallen during the storm. No, I’m fine."
"I've been calling you for two hours, mom," said her daughter's voice, obviously irritated.
"Two hours? Really? I’m sorry..."
"Mom, you need to speak up, I can't hear you.."
"I’ll try to remember to keep the phone with me from now on.”
"Mom, mom...are you still there? I'm coming over..."
"No need, dear. Hello? Hello?"
As Sarah pushed the button to end the call, she took a deep breath, amazed that her mind could play such tricks on her – and at her age too – she knew better than to allow her imagination to run away with her. She laughed quietly, amused at herself…until someone behind her whispered, “Have you heard about what happened to Sarah?”
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