This story is by Donald Gregg and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
Mr. Ávila sees the dark clouds piling up over the strait to the west. He points his old Fiat toward the big house he’s renting in this coastal city in southern Sweden. As he turns onto his street, a few large drops splatter against his windshield.
The rain begins in earnest as he tidies the downstairs and washes clothes. Laundry piles up quickly because he encourages his two wards to shower daily and to wear fresh clothes so their peculiar odor will be less noticeable. After he vacuums, he goes to the easy chair in his room and reads.
The downpour becomes heavy as the afternoon moves toward his dinner time. He goes to the fridge and takes out leftovers from dishes he had cooked earlier in the week. Putting the last of the paella and some garlic bread in the oven to warm, he smiles as he remembers an awkward scene during his first week with the children. He had shyly asked them if, you know, it was okay to cook with garlic. They had laughed at him, and Oskar had ribbed him mercilessly about the nonsense in his head about their condition – mirrors, crucifixes, and other lore.
As Mr. Ávila enjoys his dinner, he’s aware that the storm is becoming scary. The rain is coming down in sheets, and the wind has begun to howl outside the large old house. He hears the first rumble of thunder.
As he puts his dishes in the sink, Eli wanders in half-dressed from the attic, where she and Oskar sleep during the day. That startles him because he didn’t know she could be awake before sunset, but he’s more alarmed at the frightened look on her face, which makes her appear even younger than her 12 years.
A close rumble of thunder sends Eli running to him. The child throws her arms around his waist and looks up at him. “I’m scared, Mr. Ávila.”
“You’re afraid of thunder?”
“No, Mr. Ávila. The storm.”
“I’m sorry, little one. Do storms always scare you?”
“I don’t remember. I don’t think so. Not until I started living in the forest.”
Which was more than 200 years ago, Mr. Ávila thinks. I’ll have to be more careful about using the word “always.”
Mr. Ávila sits down to be at Eli’s level. Rain lashes the house, a nearby strike lights up the front rooms, and a loud peal of thunder follows. Eli scrambles onto his lap and puts her arms around his neck.
Her voice trembles as she says, “In the forest, storms made me feel little. Lightning can break big trees in pieces like they are nothing. I figure getting hit by lightning would be like if I was in sunlight – I would burn up. Whenever a storm started, I ran to my hideout and stayed underground till it was over.”
“You’re safe here, little one.”
“I know, Mr. Ávila, and I…”
A flash of lightning interrupts Eli, and a peal of thunder rattles the windows and sends her running down the hall. Mr. Ávila follows and finds her curled up and trembling on the floor of a closet. He gently picks her up and carries her to his room, where he sits in his easy chair and holds her close.
Oskar finds them a minute later. Unlike Eli, the storm excites him, but he kneels beside the chair and puts a protective arm around her.
“Eli knows how scary storms are in the forest. Nature is right in your face.”
“We can get through this together, right Miss Eli?” Mr. Ávila says.
He looks at Oskar and asks, “How is it you two are awake before sunset? I thought you had a kind of switch that turns on at dusk.”
“We sort of do, but we can handle indirect sunlight as long as we stay away from the windows.”
The conversation helps to calm Eli, but a blast of wind and rain shakes the house, another strike lights up the neighborhood, and the power shuts off as thunder – so loud that the children cover their sensitive ears – echoes all around them.
“Oskar, would you please get the candles and matches from the utility drawer in the kitchen?”
Oskar hops to it. In the gloom, the sound of wind and rain beating against the house feels oppressive, but Oskar lights the candles and they bathe the room in a reassuring glow.
Mr. Ávila carries Eli in his arms to his bookcase and takes down a volume of Winnie-the-Pooh stories. Seated again, he reads as Eli relaxes and snuggles against his chest. Oskar sits on the rug at Mr. Ávila’s feet.
Enthralled by the story, Eli forgets to be afraid. She sits up and looks at Mr. Ávila. “You mean like a bear can talk?” she asks, encountering a children’s tale for the first time since the infection cut her own childhood short. “Are there more stories like that one?” she asks solemnly.
“Indeed there are more stories, Miss Eli. This could be your first book when you and Oskar begin classes.”
“Really?” she asks, “I can have it?”
It’s well past sundown and the candles have burned down a third of the way by the time Mr. Ávila finishes reading the last story. The power comes on and the storm moves off to the east. They still hear distant rumbles, so Eli doesn’t yet want to go out with Oskar on their nightly ramble through the neighborhoods and nearby parts of the city.
Oskar suggests they hang out downstairs. He runs up to the attic and returns with games, puzzles, and a top for Eli to put on
They take their stuff down the hall to a room where they can play until Eli says she’s okay again and they can go out into the night. It’s still a long time until dawn, when they will return home to the attic, safe from the sun.
Safe from everything.