See Past the Storm

Submitted into Contest #112 in response to: Write about a character driving in the rain.... view prompt

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Contemporary Sad Fiction

Elin growled under her breath as the rain continued to pour relentlessly. It was as if the Universe was against her. First, a letter arrived to tell her that her grand-aunt had died and had left her a house at some obscure countryside. Then, as she was trying to navigate the unfamiliar road, she found herself lost—no thanks to the stranger who had given some vague and useless instruction under his breath. Her bad mood must have clouded her thoughts; she was better at making decisions than this. Going in the opposite direction would have been more logical than following a set of directions that she knew wasn't right.


Yes, something was definitely wrong with her head.


Something in the shape of a grand-aunt she didn’t know existed.


So many questions were running through her mind with no one to ask. It frustrated her, and the storm didn’t help.


At that moment, as if to taunt her, the rain fell even harder. They hit the car with such passionate frenzy, she wondered whether it was going to be the reason she went mad first.


“Shit!” She came to a stop and let out a wail. Her head thumped against the headrest, her hands still gripping the steering wheel so hard her knuckles had turned white. To make things worse, her stomach decided to cramp with hunger, letting out a familiar groan.


Alone, hungry, and lost. This day couldn’t get any more catastrophic.


After a few minutes, she let out a huge breath, forcing her fingers to relax. It wouldn’t do to drown in self-pity. Her main mission here was to sell the house, and go back home. Drowning wouldn’t solve anything. Elin began looking around, tried to squint past the opening between each wiper cycle. The sight of the menacing storm cloud made panic rise. It didn’t look like the rain was going to stop soon.


She picked up her phone, unlocked it. Still no signal. Her fingers went up to her scalp. She gave her long hair a tug, then another—and another. She could get out of the rented car and try to find someone for help, but—no, what if she didn’t find anyone and only ended up soaked to the bone? She worried her lips impatiently. The tank was still pretty full. She could go on for another thirty minutes before choosing whether to stop. That could work.


She looked up again, at how the raindrops blurred the dirt road in front of her even though the wipers were already working double-time, and sighed. There was no use trying. She’d only be wasting gas.


When she couldn’t think of anything else, she decided it was time to give up. Now that she’d finally made a choice, Elin found that she was more exhausted than she’d thought. She’d taken a twelve-hour flight, and had been driving for nearly five hours with only one stop at the gas station. Her shoulders were stiff, her back sore. If she was honest, her head was pounding as well.


She slid open the windows the tiniest bit, turned off the ignition, and tried to sleep.


***


Someone was knocking on the window. Grimacing, she lifted herself from the reclined seat, turned the car on, then lowered the window. The glares of the sunlight hurt her eyes. She had to blink a few times before they could focus on the figure in front of her.


“Hello. Are you lost?” the old lady asked. She had a short stature and a head of windswept silver hair. A warm smile spread across her features, highlighting her high cheekbones and the deep wrinkles around her bright, almond eyes.


Elin gaped, then huffed out a laugh. “Will—” She gulped and failed to resist the tugging at her lips. It was almost too good to be true. “Yes, will you help me, please? I’m trying to get to Sunflower Cottage.”


“Sunflower Cottage?” She straightened, thought for a moment, then bent to look at her again. “It’s quite a long way. Would you like me to sit with you? I’m better at giving directions when I’m seeing what’s in front of me.” She chuckled, exposing a set of crooked teeth. “And no, before you ask, it’s no trouble. You could just take me home after as a trade. How about that?”


“Yes. Yes, of course. Please.” Elin quickly shifted her backpack to the backseat, exited the car, and helped the lady in. Whatever sleepiness remained quickly evaporated. Having hope had never felt so good.


“Thank you for helping me, auntie.”


“Auntie? No, call me Granny Wren. Everyone does.”


She looked abashedly at her. “Sorry, that’s what I call those your age where I come from. Granny Wren it is. I’m Elin.”


“Ha. That’s funny. Pretty name you have there, by the way. Now, we’ll want to go forward.”


“On it.”


They rumbled down the dirt road, and Elin took her time to take in the sights. All around, they were surrounded by a large field. It stretched on further than the eyes could see. The dark clouds had completely disappeared, giving way to clear azure sky. A stream flowed not too far off, cutting through the verdant landscape.


“Have you been living here for long, Granny Wren?” asked Elin as she continued to admire the view.


“I used to. I grew up here, got married, then left. I moved around a lot after that. Oh, we take a left here. That’s right. Now tell me about yourself. How old are you?”


“I’m twenty-nine.”


“Boyfriend?”


“No.”


She looked shocked. “No? Why?”


Elin glanced at her, incredulous. “Why? Do you have someone in mind for me?”


“Maybe. Are you choosing not to have one, or you just never got around to finding one? Turn another left here.”


“Can’t find one.” She paused. “I just broke up, actually. He said I'm spending too much time at work.” It hadn’t been a peaceful break-up either. There had been so much shouting and arguing over who was right and wrong, who caused the relationship to deteriorate. Elin was quite glad that it was over, but she felt guilty too. These days, happy memories from before kept surfacing, and she wondered why she hadn’t tried harder to hold on to it before it was too late.


“Oh? What are you working as?”


“At human resources.”


“You should quit.”


Elin couldn’t hold back the giggle that bubbled up at Granny’s pout. “It’s not that easy.”


“The job messes with your life. I can tell you’re not getting enough sleep, so it’s not good for your health either. What other reason do you need?”


That stumped her. “It’s not easy to find another job.”


“When you have no good health, there might as well not be a life. You’re wasting away, child.” Granny tutted with a furrowed brow.


Elin shook her head with a sad smile. They talked about other things, about the rainstorm, about Elin being an orphan; she was adopted into a Singaporean family when she was seven. She’d flown back to the orphanage to look for her biological parents years later, only to learn that they had died a long time ago. Then there was Granny’s story about her life, how she’d moved from the city to stay with her sister after her husband died—and good thing too, since her sister really needed the care. She was suffering heavily from dementia, and to have a familiar face had helped her a lot.


“My sister never married, and she was living alone. She had the village to look out for her, but it was difficult for them. There were times when Carys would forget. She’d be so frightened she wouldn’t come out from her room at all,” Granny regaled sadly.


“Then it’s great that she had you to take care of her,” Elin said reassuringly.


“Yes, it’s a good thing.” After a while, she said abruptly, “I have a granddaughter.”


“Oh, that’s nice. Does she visit often?”


Hesitantly, Granny said, “She doesn’t— She doesn’t know I exist.”


Elin took in her pursed lips and downcast eyes. “Why not?”


Granny Wren let out a nervous breath. “I made my daughter give her up. I even made the orphanage agree not to disclose too much about the family. If Janice wanted to see her, she would go find her herself.” She sighed. “I’d love to see her—but I’m not strong enough to face her. I know she’ll blame me, but it would be nice for her to know that it was for the best at the time. My daughter was so young then—too young to even take care of herself, let alone take care of an innocent child.” A helpless single mom.


Elin brought a hand to hers. It was cold and wrinkled. “I’m sure she’ll understand. Pretty sure she’d love to see you too. The Universe knows I would.”


Granny held her hand and smiled. “Thank you.” She gave her hand a pat, then proceeded to take it hostage, peering at it this way and that. It made Elin laugh.


When they made another right turn, Granny’s expression brightened. “Ah, here we are.”


Elin took in the small cottage standing in the midst of the sunflowers with its blue roof and bricked walls. Other houses dotted the surrounding area, but none of them, she felt, could grab her attention like this one.


“Beautiful, isn’t it? I can’t believe I left.” Granny’s voice held a tone of reverence.


Elin turned to her sharply. “You’ve stayed here before?”


“Who wouldn’t want to have a look at these cottages and sunflowers for a time in their lives? It’s not often we see a field like this.” She patted her shoulder playfully, looking at her with mock annoyance. “Your grand-aunt is lucky. Imagine seeing this view everyday.”


It was vastly different from the city, where everything moved so quickly. It was only now that Elin registered how relaxed she had been on the empty road. She would never have been able to talk and drive at the same time in the city, where one had to constantly look out for idiots who swerved and changed lanes without so much as a signal—worse yet, those crossing the roads as if they owned them.


Granny Wren and Elin got down from the car. They walked to stand in front of the house, enjoying its quaint design. There was a rusty blue letterbox not too far off with a faded ‘Sunflower Cottage’ painted on it in white blocky letters. This was really it.


Elin saw a man tending to the plants that decorated the place, and felt her heart thump heavily in her chest. Was this one of her grand-aunt’s friends?


She turned to Granny Wren, intending to ask her if she needed a lift home—only to realise that she was gone. Frowning, she turned around, trying to look for her. It suddenly occurred to her as well that she hadn’t told her anything about her grand-aunt. How had she known anything about that?


“May I help you?” a voice asked suspiciously.


Elin turned back front. It was the middle-aged man she saw earlier. The shade from his straw hat made him look almost severe.


“Hello. Good morning. I received a letter the other day about the passing of my grand-aunt, and it says that she’s left Sunflower Cottage to me?” She dug through her pockets and fished out a rather crumpled piece of paper. She handed it over with a grimace, hot with embarrassment.


He looked disapproving as he took the paper from her. After reading it through, he looked at her again. His dark eyes assessed her intensely. The temptation to fidget was so strong, she had to clamp her jaws tight to resist its call.


After what felt like forever, he let out a sigh. “You look just like her.”


“What?”


“The shape of your eyes, like your grandmother. Cheekbones too.”


Elin blinked. “Erm…”


“I’m an artist. I’ve painted their portraits countless times. I’m sorry if I frightened you. Do you want to come in?” She nodded, feeling slightly dazed. As they walked upon the damp soil, he explained, “Your grandmother gave me the responsibility of caring for the house until you arrived. She wanted me to pass you the key, not some estate agent who will be here spouting nonsense into your ears.” Nonsense that she’d drink up. With reasons unknown, she felt suddenly guilty.


“Wait. My grandmother?” It finally dawned on her what he’d just said. “But my grand-aunt was the one who left this house to me. It said so on the letter.”


“Before your grandmother came to take care of your grand-aunt, your grand-aunt did own this house.” His features softened. “I believe your grandmother wanted you to know that.”


Elin let out a shaky breath. She felt so cold all of a sudden. The day couldn’t get any more bizarre. She had a grandmother all along, one who hadn’t thought of reaching out until she passed. It felt like she was being played. All this time, she’d been searching for her family; she hadn’t had any luck for so many years. Then, within a span of three days, she found out she had two.


And now she really had no one left.


As thoughts filled her mind, the man, who’d introduced himself as Jackson, pushed open the heavy wooden door. The gentle scent of roses filled her nostrils. It was everything she'd imagined. Photo frames filled the walls, sofas with floral prints on them encompassed the fireplace and clutters of vintage pieces stuffed glass cabinets. Her goose pimples subsided, replaced with a warm homeliness in her heart.


“This is yours.” Jackson held out a silver key.


Hesitantly, Elin took it from him. Something caught her eye then. It was a photograph standing just beside him on one of the rustic drawers. She moved closer to have a look. Two women in their seventies sat side by side. The background helped her see it was a photo taken right here in the living room. Her mouth dropped open when she saw who one of those women was.


Elin pointed at her. “Who’s this?” she asked breathily.


Even before he answered, she already knew the answer. Hearing it, only to confirm her hunch, made her drop to the floor and burst into tears.

September 20, 2021 10:37

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