25 – Storm Before The Storm
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The ground beneath Flint’s feet crunched and slipped beneath his shoes. He shielded his eyes with his hand as the sky pelted his skin with pebbles of ice and snow. There wasn’t much to be seen other than the wall of blinding white wind. Ernie walked beside him, as if walking through a park on a spring day. His voice was nearly inaudible over the grinding roar of the snowstorm.

“I caution you to keep your expectations low. Your mother is still adjusting to this realm. She may be- different than you remember. Her life as Margaret wasn’t her first, and it won’t be her last,” Ernie said calmly. "You are just a small part of what she's known."

“What's with the storm?” Flint shouted.

Ernie held his hand out in front of him, watching chunks of ice bounce from his palm. “We don’t choose what our students see. We only guide them through it.”

Flint dug in his heels as he trudged forward to offset the steep slope. There was nothing to orient himself, no vegetation, no landmarks or anything of the sort. The wind carried the odor of burning plastic, and its chill froze every part of him left uncovered.

“Mom!" Flint gasped as a dark shape emerged from the curtain of snow in front of them. He began to run, carrying miniature avalanches behind each of his feet.

As the ground leveled out at the bottom of the hill, Flint's feet crossed one another and he tumbled into the icy slush. He pushed himself from the snow and locked eyes with his mother.

She sat cross-legged, floating atop the sea of white powder. Her shoulders perked up a bit and her nostrils flared as she stared back at him. She didn’t look like herself, at least not the way Flint remembered her four weeks ago. Her skin was smooth, no longer jaundiced and worn, and beneath it, her pointy bones were now insulated with a healthy layer of fat.

“Mom!” Flint stumbled toward her.

Curled in her lap, the little brown terrier twisted its head toward Flint and let out a low, throaty growl.

Flint wrapped his arms around his mother and pressed his cheek hard against the top of her head. “It’s really you.”

Her forearms pushed against his chest. “What are you doing?” she grunted.

“Margaret, it’s your son, Flint. You remember Flint, don’t you?” Ernie’s voice called out from somewhere in the storm.

The dog continued to growl.

Flint opened his eyes, breaking the frozen tears that filled his eye lashes. He loosened his grip and Margaret fell back onto one elbow.

Her eyes were wide, and she panted with her mouth agape. “Flint?”

“Mom, it’s me,” Flint said.

“Flint!” She lunged toward him and wrapped him in her arms, rocking him side-to-side. Her lips were colder than the air as she pecked him on the cheek.

Her hair smelled like coconut conditioner. She was strong. He remembered what it felt like to be a child, and all he wanted was to rest his head on her lap. He would, if it weren’t for the snarling dog.

“Wait.” She grabbed him by the chin and examined his face. “What are you doing here?”

Flint opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted.

“Ernesto.” She shot him a quick glance. “Is he-?

Ernie stepped beside them with his arms crossed. “No. He’s very much alive.”

Flint brushed her hand away from his chin. “You look healthy.”

“How are you here, honey? How did you find me?” Margaret asked. She looked at least twenty years younger.

“He’s only a projection.” Ernie darted his glance toward Flint. “From his sleep, I presume.”

Flint sighed in relief, and then turned back to his mother. "Why did you leave me?" He clenched his jaw. "I could've helped you."

"It was an accident. That is in the past now," Ernie said.

Margaret ran her fingers through the dog's coarse fur. She shook her head. "I'm so sorry, honey." The wind whipped her long hair around like a tattered flag.

"You were doing so good," Flint mumbled. "I thought you finally kicked that stuff."

Margaret took a deep breath and smiled. "Do you wanna take a walk?" She pressed her hands into the snow and stood.

Ernie stepped between them. "We really shouldn't stay too long."

"A walk sounds nice," Flint said. "Does he have to come?"

Margaret clasped Flint's hand and pulled him to his feet. She kissed the dog on it's head and set it on the ground beside her.

As soon as the pads of the canine’s paws touched the ground, the roar of the storm ceased. Flint shielded his eyes from the blinding light of a massive mid-day sun. The airborne snow stopped in its tracks and fell like a popped balloon, passing through the grassy earth silently, leaving as if it never existed.

Margaret crossed her arms and pulled them close to her chest. She picked at her elbow with her fingernail and looked across the valley towards a row of violet mountain peaks that sat against the horizon. “Lanely Hills was so flat. Ernesto found this place for me. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

Flint exhaled slowly, relishing in the warm sunlight that bathed his face. “It’s amazing. I was worried at first, with the storm and all.”

“He says it’s best to stay away from things that remind you of your time before,” Margaret said.

Ernie waded through the grass and stepped onto the worn dirt path beside them. “It’s true,” He said, watching Flint from the corner of his eye as he straightened his bow-tie.

The footpath twisted and turned around boulders of pink granite and fluffy cherry-blossom trees as it descended into the valley. Flint walked beside his mother with the shopkeep and dog close behind. For a moment he wondered if he was dreaming, and if he’d even want to know.

“Aunt Karen was devastated,” Flint said.

“She shouldn’t have been. I wasn’t the best sister there at the end.” Margaret looked over her shoulder. “Or the best mom.”

Flint grabbed her hand. He winced as the image of a hypodermic needle puncturing her frail arm flashed in his head. “You were a great mom. Don’t ever doubt that.”

As they rounded a turn in the path, a cool mist of sparkling water wet Flint’s face. Thousands of feet above them, a waterfall, glowing golden in the sunlight, cascaded from a rock overhang and rained down the steep mountainside.

“When me and your father got pregnant with you, we were just kids ourselves. We didn’t have a clue what we were doing. It’s a miracle you made it this long.” She smiled.

“You never talked about dad.” Flint could feel Ernie’s gaze on the back of his neck. “What was he like before he died?”

“There wasn’t much to tell. We only met nine months before you were born.” She paused to watch a red-feathered bird flutter from one of the stubby trees that clung to the grassy slope. “He loved you. More than he loved me, no doubt.”

“Why do you think he killed himself?”

Ernie spoke from behind. “This conversation isn’t exactly in the best interest of your mother’s-”

“Would you please give us some fucking space.” Flint spun around to face him.

Ernie raised his chin and said nothing.

Flint turned to his mother and continued down the path. “Sorry.”

Margaret smiled. “Jason was a good guy most of the time. Caring, full of life, with a seemingly endless list of cheesy jokes.” She was still looking into the cloudless sky. “But he’d go through these. . .phases, where he’d either be drinking, or angry at the world, or curled up in the closet crying. It got worse and worse, and he’d check out for longer and longer. Until, eventually he just never came back."

Flint felt his shoulders tighten. He looked at his youthful mother’s face and wished he could have been there to help before she grew old. “He just left us.”

Margaret rubbed her palm against his back. “He had his demons, but I know he never stopped loving you Flint. I spent my whole life blaming him for how things turned out, but in reality, I’m just as much at fault as he is.”

The little brown dog appeared between Flint and his mother and began to whine at her feet. Its wiry tail curled between its hind legs as it circled in front of her.

Margaret stopped on the path and shushed the dog, but it continued to whimper.

“What’s his name?” Flint asked.

Margaret scratched her chest and began to shiver. "Skag." She bent and grabbed the pup by it’s belly, lifting him from the ground.

Instantly the wind roared, and the sky disappeared behind a swirling blast of bitter snow. The springtime aroma of pollen and budding flowers was overtaken by the sickening stink of toxic pollution. Flint tucked his chin into his chest and felt his slippers fill with ice.

“Why is the storm back?” Flint shouted toward Ernie, who was only a silhouette a few feet away in the blizzard.

“It’s the dog,” Ernie replied. “I tried to warn you, but you wanted some fucking space.”

He turned back to his mother, who was cradling the little dog in her arms.

“Mom,” Flint called out.

The incessant blasting of ice crystals stung Flint’s eyes, and he struggled to keep them open enough to navigate.

Margaret turned her shoulder to him. “He keeps me warm.”

Flint found her arm and pulled himself close to her. “Put him down!”

“He’ll just keep whining,” she said.

A growl began to rumble in the dog’s throat, and it bared it’s slimy black teeth. His mom stoked the space between its eyes with the tips of her fingers. “You should go, Flint,” she said, looking down at the creature.

“What?” Flint furrowed his brow. “Do something. Tell her to put it down!”

Ernie crunched closer through the snow. “She has to learn on her own. Your being here is only making it more difficult.”

“Learn how to what?” Flint screamed. “How to set down a fucking dog?”

“He is her burden. One that she brought from her life as Margaret, like the ones your father carries, it will take some time to shed.”

Flint turned his attention back to the snarling dog. “It’s a demon.”

Ernie rolled his eyes and laughed. “Demon? What is Amira teaching over there?” He clasped his hands over his apron. “I think it’s about time to go. Margaret, how about we let Skag down so you can hug Flint goodbye.”

Her hair wrapped around her face and stuck to her lips. “He keeps me warm. Just give me a minute.”

Flint’s nostrils flared. He locked eyes with Ernie and grinded his teeth.

Ernie’s Adam’s apple bobbed up and down and his feet shuffled in the snow.

Flint turned and took a long step toward his mother and her mutt. He felt a tear freeze in the corner of his eye. His heart racing, he reached for Skag and wrapped his hands around the dog’s scrawny neck.

“Flint! No!” Margaret screamed. She held the dog tighter and jerked backwards, but Flint twisted it beneath his arm and wrenched him away from her.

The wind stopped. The snow fell, and the sun sparkled in Skag’s dark obsidian eyes. It kicked its hind legs and clawed at Flint’s forearm.

“That’s enough!” Ernie held a shaking pointer finger in front of him.

Flint bared his own teeth back at the dog as he squeezed tighter around its throat. “This is her heroin. This is what killed her.”

“Stop. Please stop.” Margaret grabbed and jerked at Flint’s bicep.

Skags kicks became more sluggish. It’s sunken belly began to convulse.

Ernie stepped in front of him, his eyes wide and reddened. “I’m warning you Flint. Stop what you are doing this instant.”

Flint turned his back to Ernie. His teeth slipped as he clenched them harder. He could feel the greasy mutt’s life slipping away in his hands. “Die.” Something hit him in his gut. Flint wheezed as he tumbled through the air. As he flew, he caught a glimpse of Ernie standing below with his fist still outstretched. The hard surface of the mountain rushed toward him and slammed into his back, expelling the last bit of air he held in his lungs.

Fifteen feet from where Flint landed, Skag limped over to Margaret who was kneeling in the dirt. She raised him from the ground and the storm began again.

Ernie walked toward Flint through the wall of white wind. “Get up. You’re leaving.”

Flint winced and put his hand on his back as he stood. “I’ll kill that fucking thing. And you too, if I have to.”

“You’ll do no such thing.” Ernie twirled his fingers in the air. “Move.”

Flint pressed his hand against his face and drug it through his hair. “Let me tell her bye.”

“We tried that,” Ernie said.

“Please.”

Ernie stared for a moment and then nodded.

Flint leaned into the wind as he sprinted back toward his mother. He paused and locked eyes with Skag for a moment. “Mom.”

“I love you too, honey,” Maragaret said.

Flint wrapped his arms around her and pulled her into his chest. “I know.”

Ernie tapped him on his shoulder and Flint looked back at him.

“Alright Mom. I’ll see you again, I promise.”

Margaret smiled and closed her eyes. Flint let go of her and she laid her cheek onto Skag’s fur. She knelt down and sat in the snow, nuzzling the dog.

Flint followed Ernie back up the mountain, taking care to keep him close enough to grab if he should slip. “You shouldn’t have stopped me,” Flint said.

Ernie glanced back. “I don’t teach like Amira. I’m not going to let someone else solve my student’s problems.”

Flint continued to follow silently until they reached a rectangle of orange light shining from within the blinding snow.

“After you.” Ernie grabbed the door and swung it open, allowing mounds of dusty snow to accumulate just inside the shop.

Flint froze as he stepped out of the blizzard and into the toasty room. “Pov?”

Ernie stepped in behind him and shut the door. “You know this man?”

Pov slapped his palm onto the wooden countertop. “Finally, some service.” He smiled and then his face fell flat again. “Flint, you need to wake up. It's Abbey.”

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