A Summer (Un)like Any Other – Lidia Tsvetkova
It was August, and my Aunt had just had her fifth hatchling. They were pretty children, although all of them – strangely enough – looked like her boss, rather than my Uncle. If he had noticed, he certainly didn’t let on. But then again, my Uncle, he was a bookish, scientific type, with thick glasses and a far-away expression, too immersed in the future to worry about the past or present. Always kind to the children and good to his wife, but…. Mostly not there. Which was starting to show with a slight transparency of his legs. It had gotten worse over the course of the Summer, making it look, now, like his torso was floating off the ground in a steady military pace.
But I digress.
So yes, it was August. It was hot, and cold, and humid, with an occasional dry patch. But not too dry, you understand. Just… Arid. The summer was nearing its end, the storms on their way. Our little town – only a few million people and three dogs – started preparing for the annual fair. Everybody loved the annual fair. The children got to eat as much cotton candy as they wanted and loved to shoot – with glee and a murderous fascination – at some rigged targets. Their parents could relax for a whole afternoon, safe in the knowledge that their offspring would not run with scissors unsupervised. Maybe they would secretly run with matches, but what the parents didn’t know…
And then there was the grand finale. Thanks to the top-notch weather station, the beginning of the storm could be predicted with a margin of about five minutes. When the time came, everybody who didn’t wish to be swept up and squashed against a nearby building by the hurricane du jour had cleared away. The contestants grabbed a hold of the thick maritime ropes attached to hooks welded to the stage, and held on for dear life. Quite often literally, but as long as the municipality didn’t decide to outlaw the Contest, nobody complained. Then the first gust hit, and off they went! Hanging upside down on the ropes, like sharks who had just found a severed leg at the bottom of the ocean.
A second squall hit unexpectedly, and a few people let go in surprise. The rest squealed in delight and held on tighter to their respective tethers. After half an hour of swelling storm, only three people were still attached, hair and shirts blowing wildly around their heads, feet dangling, arms straining with the want, the need to hold on, to survive, to win this thing. Oh, how exciting it was!
And then it happened. The storm stopped. Just like that, without any warning, the wind lay down and the contestants flopped down into the stage, like fish. Ugly, wind-swept fish. Utter silence on the square, eyes blinking as if to say… “Come back, wind! We’re not done with you yet! Where did you go?” A few minutes went by, then others started poking their heads out of the storm-resistant pavilions and houses nearby. The game master came out of her bulletproof glass booth, still brandishing the megaphone through which she had been shouting the names of the losers. The two men and woman – sole survivors of this year’s Contest – still clutched their respective ropes, too stunned to believe this was over already.
“What’s going on?” Mrs. Quidd wanted to know. She still had the loudspeaker in front of her face, and the loud sound of her – rather shrill and unpleasant – voice seemed to wake everyone up from their reverie.
I was only ten at the time, but I still recall the utter despair that came over the town. People shuffled out of their houses, dazed, blinking up at the clear blue sky, cowering a little as if to say, “Are we certain the storm has passed? I prefer to believe the predictions of the weather people, rather than what I can see with my own three eyes.”
The contestants finally let go of their ropes. The woman – Ms. Plum – flopped down onto the concrete stage and started crying. Her husband ran up to her, scooped her up with some difficulty (using rocks to weigh one down during the Contest was not considered cheating) and carried her home. I heard later that she had had a nervous breakdown. All she ever did for the rest of her life was sit in front of the fireplace, muttering, “I could have won that thing. Five more minutes, and I would have won that thing.” The other two players walked off the stage slowly, shoulders trembling with unspoken emotion, and disappeared into a field. They were never heard of again. I believe they managed to find separate caves to live in, with some strong trees nearby, and every time a storm hits, they continue their rivalry. So far, neither has returned to our town triumphant.
My mother cradled me to her chest then. My brother had been carried off a few years back, possibly to a nearby town (we never found out, because my brother was dead to her the moment he let go of that rope), and she had really hoped to enter me into the Contest next year. To win, like my father did, five years ago – only to die of pneumonia two weeks later, but my mother called that “details”. Very competitive, my mother was.
Dead silence still. People shuffling about like zombies. Wreckage of the hurricane sticking out from the concrete in grotesque and ominous shapes. The usual Contest business, of course, but normally, all of this would have followed a win. Nobody talked to each other as people started to clear away their stalls, sweeping the street and breaking up the stage. The silence stretched into the evening, weighing down the whole town, permeating the air with its nothingness, its despair, and its senselessness. Everyone knew that this “mishap” would change something, they just didn’t know how much – or, even, what, exactly – would alter.
I had slept uneasily – perhaps my mother’s inhumane wailing for most of the night had something to do with that. I usually managed to sleep through her terrible screeching, and even her animalistic howling, but that night was unlike any other. I got up early and went outside. The sun was just rising in the South and as I shielded my eyes from its blinding and venomous rays, I saw something that shall haunt me until the end of my days. The weather station – our new, beautiful, shiny Municipal Weather Station for the Town of […] – had been raided and set on fire. I remember thinking, to my own 10-year-old self, “What monstrosity could have done this‽” Not Nessie, I knew. Her migration hadn’t started yet, and even if it had – the lass didn’t breathe fire.
I approached the smouldering mess slowly, searching for possible clues as to what had occurred. As I rounded the site, I saw a few of the town’s people standing there, looking at the abomination, doing nothing to stop the destruction of the building. The butcher was there, and the mechanic, and even the drunk’s wife – who never ever left her house. There was satisfaction on their faces, and at that moment, I knew. They were the ones who had set the weather station on fire. They had torn out the heart and soul of the town and trodden on it with their heavy boots and house-slippers.
The very next day, by decree of the Mayor, the Contest was banned. An investigation after the culprits of “that despicable act of vandalism” was set in motion, but no witnesses ever came forward. The case was dismissed, but a new weather station was never built. After a few weeks, everything seemingly went back to normal, but something was off. The town seemed bleaker somehow, the people demure. One of the dogs died, and nobody even paid attention. A new kindergarten teacher in the place of Ms. Plum was hired from out of town – I do believe she was very good at her job.
Next year, as the annual fair started approaching, whispers of a possible renewal of the Contest were exchanged. It never came. Of course, there was an illegal alternative behind the stables, with make-shift ropes and a stuttering referee, which everybody knew about (even the Mayor), but that was not the same. I participated in that, of course, but winning didn’t feel quite as exhilarating as I had hoped. As years advanced, the fair slowly lost all appeal to the townsfolk and was finally abandoned. People started leaving town soon after that – whole families moving out at once, leaving their old life behind and starting over someplace new. Soon, we were down to only a few thousand inhabitants.
At eighteen, I left for college. I never went back home – mother had died of a broken heart, and I had no more family left. But I never forgot. Every time I come across a fair, or a fête, or a carnival, I always ask, “So… Do you have a hurricane contest, by any chance?” People look at me strangely, some even laugh, thinking it’s a joke. I always laugh along, knowing it is not. My search is a fool’s errand, I am well aware. But in my heart, I believe that, someday, I shall find my Contest. And when I do, I will be home.