A gust of wind blew around the outside of the house as Mike pried the bottle cap off his fourth beer with his teeth. It was a trick one of his old classmates had taught him—a trick he used to use to impress women in bars, but now, domesticated, he only used when he couldn’t find the bottle opener.
The cap fell to the ground, and Mike pressed down on the ridges with the sole of his foot. He lifted his leg, retrieved the cap, and threw it in the trash.
“I thought you said just one more beer tonight,” his wife said, framed by the doorway to the hall.
“I’ve had a long day, Alice.”
He noticed her eyes occasionally flicker to look over his shoulder, and realized she was looking out through the window over the sink into the back yard. The thunder and rain were getting louder, and leaves had blown up against the glass, scraping and clinging to it.
“Are you still worried about the storm?” he said.
“The sirens are going off. You should take these things more seriously.”
“Remind me of the date this house was built,” he said. As a psychiatrist, he was used to trying to help people understand their own, illogical fears.
“1922,” she said, each syllable quieter than the last.
“That means this house has survived forty-three years of storms, tornado warnings, fallen branches, you name it. Just think of what the chances are that this is the one that will take it down.”
Their small home didn’t have a basement, and in weather like this, the hallways were supposedly the safest places. Mike didn’t know what difference it would make to be in a hallway if the entire house was torn out of the earth. He’d read in the paper once about a family who’d emerged from their storm cellar to find that their house was no longer there—completely vanished as if it had never been erected in the first place.
“At least go check on the kids,” Alice said. Mike noticed she would occasionally hold her fingers on her ears in the guise of brushing back her hair. It was something he noticed her do anytime it was storming, sirens or not.
He made his way down the hallway, lined with family pictures—glass that would shatter and land on them if that’s where they chose to take refuge—and gently pushed open the door to the kids’ bedroom. Rick and Tommy slept in twin beds separated by a nightstand. Colorful school-made decorations dangled from the ceiling, and two pewter crucifixes looked down over each sleeping boy.
He closed the door behind him and sat down on a couch in the living room near the front door. The room illuminated in flashes of lighting, and an outline of the twisted sycamore tree in their front yard flashed on their shag carpet. Alice sat down on the armrest of the loveseat across the room, gently kicking her foot back and forth.
Mike was in the stage of intoxication he appreciated most—a comfortable numbness on the borderline of regular feeling and debilitation. He’d spent the afternoon with Elizabeth, a bratty housewife who thought she understood what it meant to be stressed. Splayed out over the couch, she would ramble about her father who made her feel guilty about not visiting him enough, her children who didn’t give her enough time to rest, and her husband who she assumed—without providing any reasonable evidence—was cheating on her. One of the reasons Mike married Alice was because of her maturity; she acted like a man.
A crash came from the front yard, and Alice trotted to the window then quickly turned to Mike.
“A branch from the sycamore just fell right in front of our house. That could have crushed our roof.”
“Get away from the window,” Mike said. “You know they tell you to stay away from windows in storms.” Alice immediately returned to her perch on the couch, the color drained from her face, and Mike regretted saying anything about the windows.
Then there was a smaller crash near the front door—not a crash, Mike realized, but what sounded like one, solitary knock. Then there was another. He looked up to Alice, but she had her fingers on her ears again.
He got up and looked through the peephole on the door, a small portal into the danger, but the rain was pouring in so many different directions that he couldn’t make out the shape of a person. He felt Alice’s hand fall on his shoulder, and he told her he’d heard a knock.
“It was probably another branch,” she said. “Don’t open the door. You’ll let the storm in.”
There was another knock, this time more desperate, and without hesitation, Mike opened the door. A tall man stood on their front porch. He had on a dark brown fedora, a long coat, and he was carrying a briefcase. Under his coat, he was wearing a black suit and tie.
“Do you mind if I come in?” the man said.
Mike hesitated at the abrupt request and looked back to Alice, but she didn’t take her eyes off the guest.
“Of course, of course,” Mike stepped to the side and extended his arm inward in a confused display of hospitality. Alice had stepped back a few feet and remained quiet.
“Caught in the storm?” Mike said.
The man sat down his briefcase and hung his hat next to Mike’s on the rack near the door.
“I used to live here,” the man said, dripping rain onto their carpet. His eyes were glazed over like he’d just come out of a coma.
“Did you, really?” Mike said. “We’ve been here now…four years?” He looked to Alice for support, and she nodded.
“Yes, that’s right. You two bought the house after I left.”
“Isn’t that something, Alice?”
“It is,” she said, gesturing with her thumb at the stranger and squinting her eyes.
“Well,” the man said, straightening his tie, “I’m leaving town for good, and I wanted to see this house again before I left. I hope it’s not a bother.” His words were subtly slurred.
Mike looked out the front window at the sycamore. It bent almost parallel with the ground, like a soldier that had been shot on the battlefield.
“Well, maybe you should stay until this nasty weather passes,” Alice said. She had on a fake smile—one Mike recognized from when she was angry but trying to stay positive around the kids.
“Can I get your coat?” Mike said.
The man walked past him into the hallway and then into the kitchen. Mike and Alice followed.
“Now, the walls weren’t anything like this when I lived here with Lisa,” he said. He put his hands in his pockets and walked to the window, looking out past the clinging leaves. “And I see you got rid of the swings in the backyard.”
“They were getting rusty,” Alice said. “We’re thinking about putting a new set up sometime soon. So, how far do you have to travel?”
The man brushed past them and headed toward their bedroom. Alice put a hand on Mike’s shoulder, and he looked at her and nodded, like he had everything under control. He’d tell the man to leave if he had to.
“What did you say your name was?” Alice said.
“Lisa and I loved this bedroom.” He ran his hand down the wallpaper near the light switch, before flipping the light off and closing the door. He looked across the hallways at the adjacent bedroom.
“We better not go in there,” Alice said.
The man pushed the bedroom door open and stepped in. Mike grabbed his shoulder, and trying to keep his voice down, asked him to back out of the room. The man grabbed Mike’s hand and threw it off his shoulder with such force that Mike realized he wouldn’t be strong enough to hold him back.
“They remind me of my kids,” the man said, looking down at the children. “I had a boy and a girl, though. They slept in beds just like this.”
Somehow, the boys hadn’t woken up. Mike quickly studied the bedroom for anything he could use as a weapon if he had to. When he turned around, Alice had disappeared. As the man stood over the beds, seemingly lost in thought, Alice returned with a steak knife in her hand. She held it up against the back of her leg. The look in her eyes was concentrated, primal, and Mike realized for the first time that she wouldn’t hesitate to kill this man to protect their children.
The man turned back to them and walked past them into the living room. As Mike was closing the kids’ door behind him, the wind grew louder, and multiple, piercing shrieks shot past the windows and through the wood of their walls like their house was surrounded by wailing banshees.
“Mike, we need to get the kids up. The storm is getting worse.” The sirens were still sounding through the screams of wind, and Mike knew she was right. “I’ll keep our guest company, but they can’t be in that room right now.”
Alice disappeared back into the living room, the knife glistening as it pressed up against her thigh. Mike went into the boys’ room and shook them both awake, explaining that they needed to get up and come out into the hallway. Their mother had been over the rules during a storm with them before, but they’d never actually had to use them. The boys followed Mike into the hall, rubbing their eyes, and they both sat up against the walls with their stuffed bears and blankets.
Back in the living room, Alice was watching as the man thumbed through their shelf of records, and he slid one off, pulled it from the sleeve and placed it on their turntable. His movements were precise, like he’d played thousands of records in his life, like the process wouldn’t be compromised by his apparent intoxication. When the record clicked on, Mike recognized the track as Elvis Presley’s Blue Moon of Kentucky.
As the vinyl spun, the man watched it for a few moments, hypnotized, then shifted his attention back to the shelf. “You’ve got a nice collection here. You know, I did some producing in my time.” The man didn’t look any older than forty-five. “It’s how I met my wife, and now she’s gone. Don’t take each other for granted. Learn how to fight without ending things permanently.” Elvis’ voice was now only slightly louder than the wind and the sirens.
Mike noticed something move in the corner of his eye and saw Tommy standing in the doorway to the living room.
“Dad, who’s that?” He was dragging his blanket behind him like a low-hanging cloud.
“Well, hello, sport,” the man said, turning around.
Mike pulled Tommy close to him. “This is just a nice man who got caught in the storm. He’s just about to leave.”
“Why does mom have a knife?”
The man’s eyes shot down to the knife pressed up against Alice’s thigh, and he smiled.
“What’s your name, son?” The man now had his hand on Tommy’s shoulder.
“I’m Tommy,” he said, looking up at the man, fearless. “You can’t leave now, it’s storming. It isn’t safe.”
“Go back into the hall with your brother,” Mike said, but Rick was already in the room behind them. The two children were both unusually quiet, their normal barrage of questions absent. Mike silently thanked the tryptophan from their turkey dinner like it was some kind of god.
Alice pulled the knife out from behind her thigh so it was in front of her, and the man lunged for it, twisting it from her hand. Then he threw it behind him and it nicked the paint on the far wall and fell behind the dresser near the record player. He put the base of both of his palms on his temples and closed his eyes. “It’s lovely what you’ve done with this house. I miss it.”
Alice pulled both kids onto the love seat and sat them on either side of her. She brushed her hands through both of their hair. By the look in her eyes, Mike could tell she was probably just as dangerous without the knife.
Mike’s head was spinning, and he wished he could go throw up whatever was in his system so he could give the situation the attention it deserved. The sirens were still sounding. How long had it been now? Twenty minutes? He wanted to sit down and close his eyes.
The man slowly made his way back to the coat rack and put his hat back on. He was still dripping from when he’d come in. Blue Moon of Kentucky had clicked off, and in the moment of quiet between songs, disturbed by the noise from outside, the man pulled open the front door. He looked at Mike, his eyes still fogged like someone had blown smoke into them and it had been trapped there a long time. There were fallen branches all over the front yard and leaves were blowing around in mini-spirals like aspiring tornadoes.
“You have a nice family,” he said. “Remember to enjoy the music.” He tipped his hat and left.
Mike threw himself up against the door and locked the deadbolt. Then he looked back through the peephole but all he could see was the rain through the old, fogged over glass.
“Do you think he’ll be alright, Dad?” Tommy said. Alice had both hands on her face now and she was crying.
“The storm will pass soon enough,” Mike said, and out the front window he saw two headlights briefly illuminate the streams of rain and vanish down the street.
Banner Image: By NOAA Photo Library, NOAA Central Library; OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons