Thunder rolls over a small desert town in southern California. In the Dougal house, glass trinkets on the shelves shudder, threatening to fall. Sean, an eighteen year old boy with dark hair and glasses, clamps his hand over a ceramic mermaid to hold it in place. Behind him, his grandfather wakes from his nap on the recliner and jerks his head back to stare at the ceiling.
“Rain,” says his grandfather, his voice low and hoarse.
Sean lets go of the mermaid and cleans off his glasses with the sleeve of his hoodie as he turns around. “Yep. We need it, too.”
“It rained half the year in Cork,” his grandfather says.
“Mom will probably get back before it starts, though.” Sean says, ignoring him. He didn’t care to hear another speech about how great and/or horrible things were back in Ireland.
Sitting down on the faded orange sofa next to him, Sean returned to organizing his college registration papers on the coffee table. Did he want a single dorm, or a roommate? After years of being an only child, maybe he wasn’t equipped to handle sharing a room. Then again, he could benefit from the change. The recliner to his left squeaks, and Sean looks up to see his grandfather padding over to the window.
The pitter-patter sound of raindrops fills the living room as the storm begins. Sean frowns, keeping an eye on his grandfather’s balance.
“Do you want your cane?” he asks.
His grandfather shakes his head and lifts up a trembling hand to peek through the blinds. He sighs.
“It’s been too long,” says the old man. “It’s time.”
Sean picks up a pencil and starts to fill out a form. “Time for what?”
“Time to go out.” His grandfather steps away from the window and heads for the front door. He stops to slip is shoes on, leaning against the wall for support.
“Grandpa, you can’t go out.” Sean says, dropping his pencil and standing up. “It’s raining.” He goes over to his grandpa and takes his arm to steer him away from the door. His grandfather just shakes his head and tries to shrug him off. “Mom’s coming home and then she’ll make dinner. It’s gonna be mashed potatoes, remember? They’re your fa--”
“I don’t give a damn about the bleedin’ potatoes, boy!” he snapped.
Sean dropped his arm and took a step back, holding his hands up in surrender. “Whoa, sorry.”
His grandfather peered at him through his milky eyes, his frown deepening the wrinkles on his face. “I can’t be runnin’ and hidin’ at every April shower, can I?”
“For one, it’s May, and two--” Sean stopped and grumbled when his grandfather turned away and opened the front door. “Grandpa, we can go for a walk when it stops, I promise.”
“No!” His grandfather halted in the doorway and twisted back, pointing a skeletal finger to Sean’s face. “You stay here and you wait for your mother. I mean it, Sean. I don’t need you cryin’ after me like a baby.”
“No one said I was crying, old man.” Sean huffed, folding his arms across his chest.
His grandfather’s face softened, and he smiled. “This old man just has somethin’ he’s needin’ to do.”
“Fine,” says Sean. “but when you get a cold and die, I’m telling mom it was your fault.”
His grandfather laughs. “You’re right about that, m'boy. It was my fault.”
With that, he closes the door behind him. Sean rocks back on his heels, torn between worry over his grandfather’s health and his need to respect his wishes. He shakes his head to clear his thoughts and walks over to the window, pulling the blinds up to see outside. A few yards into the street, his grandfather makes small, unsteady steps. Sean adjusts his glasses, contemplating getting his cane. However, the old man had been so adamant about not being followed, that Sean figures he can deal with a fall on his own.
Time inches by as he slowly makes his way further and further down the street. A dull roar replaces the pitter-patter. The heavy downpour makes it difficult for Sean to see. His grandfather can’t be that far away, but the blurry figure seems smaller than it should be. Sean talks off his glasses to once again wipe them clean with his sleeve, putting them back on only when he’s sure every smudge is gone. He look back out the window, squints his eyes, and frowns.
As he continues to walk, his grandfather’s steps become sluggish. His arms dangle at his sides as if held down by some enormous weight. Sean presses his nose against the glass to get a closer look, worry and guilt bubbling in his stomach. His grandpa’s head seems to sink into his shoulders as his back hunches forward. He falls to his knees, and Sean immediately runs for the door.
He throws it open and races into the street. Raindrops cling to the lenses of his glasses, obscuring his vision. Sean can’t see what’s happening, only going with instinct. His clothes quickly soak through to his skin. Puddles splash with every step, along with a sickening squish in his waterlogged shoes. The little moving shape of color Sean knows is his grandfather appears to crumble as he gets closer. Cupping his hands over his mouth, Sean calls out for him. His voice cracks and tears sting his eyes. Sean wonders how he knew he would come crying after him.
The worry and guilt in his stomach turns into nausea as the shape collapses, no longer even half the size of the old man it started out as. Sean stops and tries calls out again, but it just turns into a sob. He trudges forward, his pace much slower with the weight of all the water in his clothes. When he reaches his goal, he kneels down into the puddle to find nothing but a pile of clothes. He picks up his grandfather’s plaid shirt, but it slips through his fingers like mud.
Sean holds back another sob and plunges his hands into the clothes, only to be met with some thick, slimy substance. He digs through it, hoping that somehow he can pull his grandfather out from underneath. The rain keeps pounding down on him, thunder shaking his bones with every boom. What remains of the clothes dissolves in the water, leaving only wet pavement behind.
A car pulls up, stopping next to where Sean sits in the road. The door opens and his mother steps out. She crouches down next to him and shakes him by the shoulders, but Sean doesn’t respond. He just stares at the pavement, and the water rushing over it. His whole body just aches with guilt. Sean closes his eyes and leans into his mother, wrapping his arms around her and holding on for dear life.
Soon, Sean is back home; his shoulders draped in a towel and a mug of hot tea in his hands. He sits at the kitchen table, trying to make sense of what happened, but his mind is blank.
“His name is James Dougal,” his mother says into her phone. She's on the phone with the police, and Sean silently commends her for doing the rational thing in the face of horrible weirdness. “He’s my father. He, well, my son says he just ran off in the rain. I think he was confused. My father’s in his seventies, and well, you now how it gets.”
Sean can’t make out the officer’s muffled response. Pushing his tea away, Sean rests his head on the table. When his closes his eyes, all he can see is the crumbling shape in the rain, so he focuses his attention on the dancing shamrock pattern on the mug. It’s one of those cheesy Saint Patrick’s Day gifts that his mother loves and his grandfather hates.
Hanging up, his mom leans against the table and purses her lips. “I just don’t get it.”
“No kidding,” Sean says, flatly. If he crosses his eyes, the green and gold colors on the mug blend together, and almost look pretty.
“Dad hated the rain,” says his mom as she pulls out a chair and sits down. “Hell, back when I was a kid, if the weather forecast was bad, we’d go on a road trip.
He’d make a game out it. Like, the rain can’t catch us! We’ll outrun it!” She sighs and rests her chin in her hand. “I think it’s why he moved here, you know? The low rainfall. That freak storm came out of nowhere, though.”
Sean looks up at her. “Do you, um, do you have any idea why he hated it?”
“I think,” she says as she tucks a lock of dark hair behind her ear, “that it reminded him of Ireland.”
“Rained half the year in Cork,” says Sean, mimicking his grandfather’s accent. He picks up his head and pulls the mug closer to him. Running his thumb across the goofy shamrock faces, he frowns. “Why did he leave?”
“Oh, the mystery of my father’s great departure,” says his mother with a small smile. “Probably running from the mob or something. You know all those stories he would tell, about him and his brother trying to be con artists when they were your age?”
Sean nods and smiles. “Yeah. They’d paint rabbit skins and sell them as sealskins.”
“But the trick...” says his mother, holding up a finger as if to give Sean his cue. He gladly complies.
“...Was to get out of town before it rained.”
Sean sits up straight as the words leave his mouth. Did that have something to do with what happened? Was his grandfather trying to clue them in on something this whole time? Sean had always thought that the rain would wash off the paint and reveal their ruse, but maybe there was something more to it. His mother’s warm hand covers his own, and he looks up to see her smiling at him.
“You don’t need to worry, alright?” she says. “Grandpa just got confused. It happens. The police will find him soon, and this will all be just another story.”
“Right,” says Sean. The urge to tell her what he really saw builds up in his throat like bile, but he takes a sip of tea to force it down.
“Do you want me to make you something?” she asks.
Sean shakes his head. “No thanks. I’m gonna go to bed.”
“Just let me know if you need anything,” says his mother. “Goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” says Sean as he out his chair and gets up from the table.
As he makes his way across the house to his room, he stops at the living room window. Peering through the blinds, he trembles at what he sees. The storm is powerful, destructive. It whips the branches of sturdy trees back and forth until they break.
The water floods the streets, trapping people in their homes. But the storm is also cleansing. It washes over the little town like baptism, removing all sins. The sunshine tomorrow will be brighter and more beautiful than ever before.
Sean wonders why his grandfather fled the rain for so many years, but shakes his head to push away the thought. What’s important is that he faced it, this unknown force that dissolved him in minutes.
That night, Sean dreams of seals, their smooth bodies and slippery skin sliding through the infinite depths of the ocean.