i. Tropical Storm Josephine had made landfall in the Carolinas before racing up the east coast; whatever power she’d had was largely lost there, and by the time she’d reached New York, Josephine hadn’t been much more than an extremely windy, overlarge thunderstorm.
To the three year old huddling under his bed, completely swathed in blankets, however, she was quite possibly the scariest thing on earth at that moment.
The room was violently illuminated with a stark white light that put everything in too high a contrast, all bleached whites and dark shadows, but then just as suddenly it was dark again. A second later the boy shrieked, the sound lost in a clap of thunder that shook the house and echoed in the air once it had gone.
There was no way that she could have heard his scream, but she didn’t need to; she just knew these things, and even if she couldn’t hear or see him from where she was, she knew that he needed her, just like she always did.
He flinched as light poured into his room again, but this time he realized it was coming from the hallway as she opened his door, not from another stroke of lightning, and when the room darkened again, it was because she was standing in the doorway, not because the lightning was gone and the thunder was coming.
“What’s the matter, Percy?” she asked, spotting the boy from where he was curled underneath the bed with his hands clapped over his ears and his knees drawn into his chest.
Sally took a step into the room just as Percy squirmed out from under the bed and ran to her, tripping on the blanket he insisted on dragging with him. She knelt in time to catch him in a hug and murmured soothing things into his ear as the trembling toddler buried his face in the crook of her neck.
“It’s just a storm, Percy,” she promised. “That’s all.”
She stood and carried him with her into the warmly lit living room, groaning slightly under the weight of the boy as he clung to her shirt. Thunder boomed again and he clutched tighter while Sally ran a hand through his dark hair.
“It’s scary,” he finally said as Sally sank onto the couch and settled him in her lap, one hand still combing soothingly through his hair.
“I know, Percy, but it’s just some rain,” she promised. “You like rain, remember?”
“The lightning’s scary,” he clarified in a childish mumble. “And the t’under.”
“The lightning’s scary, huh?” she asked, craning her neck to look at him. “It’s just some flashy lights, you know. And the thunder can’t hurt you either, even if it is loud. That’s all it is, just some loud noise.”
Light blazed through the window again, followed by thunder that shook the house for a third time as if in an attempt to belie her words, and Percy cowered further into her chest.
“Percy, look at me,” she said. “I know the storm is scary right now, but it can’t hurt you. All it is is some bright lights and loud noises, and those can’t hurt anybody, can they?”
“No,” he admitted reluctantly.
“Besides, I’m your mother,” she reminded, ruffling his hair gently. “I’m here to protect you from the scary stuff, and I always will, okay?”
Sitting in his mother’s lap, it didn’t take long for Percy to fall back asleep, reassured against the storm that continued to rage outside, but Sally didn’t move to put him back in his bed. Instead, she continued to run her fingers through his hair, wondering just how long she would have before he was found by the things that she wouldn’t be able to protect him from.
ii. They had been going to the cabin at Montauk ever since he could remember, but his first clear memory of their little beach paradise wasn’t until he was seven, and, perhaps paradoxically, it was also one of his worst memories of the place. At least, it started that way.
It was too early in the year for the storm outside to qualify as a hurricane, but you wouldn’t have known that from the way the rain hammered against the sagging roof; the cabin shook from the combination of wind and thunder, and the only time anything was visible outside was when lightning flashed or struck at the sea, which was seemingly waging a war of its own against the shoreline if the ferocity of the waves was anything to go by.
Percy sat wide eyed on his bed with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, flinching slightly every time thunder boomed overhead. Sally sat behind him with her arms hugging him into her chest, and looking worriedly out the window; the storm had caught them completely by surprise. One moment it had been a perfectly clear afternoon, and the next the wind had been screaming around them, with the rain blowing sideways.
She sighed as lightning streaked down to strike the sea, revealing the angry white capped waves for a split second before the scene went dark again, and wondered who’d started the argument this time.
Percy jumped again as thunder cracked loud enough to rattle the windows in their frames, doing his best to keep from looking scared and failing miserably, and Sally ruffled his hair gently.
“Did you know that the ancient Greeks thought lightning was sacred?” she asked. “They thought any place it struck was a holy place, and they built the temples to their gods on those places.”
“Really?” he asked. “Why? It’s scary.”
“They thought it was the weapon of the gods,” she said. “It was supposed to be scary. But they thought it was holy because the gods used it to fight their enemies, and that kept the people safe.”
“What about Thor?” he asked, picturing the hammer-wielding comic book hero. “He has lightning, too.”
“Thor wasn’t Greek,” she chuckled. “He was Scandinavian. But you’re right; he used lightning to fight his enemies, too. Oak trees were considered sacred to him because they were so tall they were always being struck by lightning.”
“Is lightning always a weapon?” he asked, looking dubiously out the window as it flashed again, streaking erratically across the black sky. “’Cause I mean...what if they missed or something and hit one of the good guys?”
“Not always,” she admitted. “The Navajo see it as a healing power, because it comes with the rain.”
“Those are Indians, right?”
“Right. They live in the desert, so they need the lightning storms to grow their food, or they won’t get enough water.”
“Oh,” he looked outside the window again. “It’s still kinda scary, but I guess lightning’s not too bad, then....”
“Nope,” she agreed. “Not too bad at all. And you know Santa’s reindeer? Donner and Blitzen are named for lightning, too. They’re German words that mean ‘thunder’ and ‘lightning’.”
“Really?” he asked, his eyes wide again, but for a completely different reason. “Well, I guess it can’t be bad then, if Santa named his reindeer after it.”
Sally smiled at his logic and ruffled his hair again, earning a scowl from her son. The storm continued to rage outside, but after a minute, he turned to her again.
“What about stories about the sea? Do you know any of those?”
“Oh, I know lots of stories about the sea,” she said. “Let me tell you about how horses were created....”
iii. He didn’t understand it. He never would understand it. The whole thing was just so wrong and he couldn’t understand why she would ever do something like this.
From the moment he’d met him, the then eight year old Percy had known Gabe Ugliano was a world class jerk, winner of the gold medal for being a first rate jackass (not that he would ever dare use that word in front of his mother). It wasn’t just because he looked ugly and smelled, either; his mother had taught him enough for him to at least try not to judge people based on how they looked alone.
The fact of the matter was, Gabe was, by all definitions of the word, disgusting.
Sally had brought him home with her not long after an odd looking stranger had tried to grab him while they were walking home from a bookstore. He’d been caught up with a brightly colored window display when a rough hand had wrapped itself around his upper arm. Sally had yelled something and swung her bag of newly acquired books at the man’s head with all the skill of a pro batter, and he’d run off cursing in a language that Percy hadn't recognized, gone before he'd had a chance to get a real look at him. Sally had rushed him home, refusing to answer any questions about the encounter, and the next afternoon she’d brought home the man whom he would christen Smelly Gabe within the week.
And now she was marrying him, and he just couldn’t understand why.
He had always heard that weddings were supposed to be happy things, but theirs certainly wasn’t. He wasn’t there; they hadn’t had a ceremony, but had just gone to the courthouse to get all of the legal papers signed and out of the way.
He hadn’t even bought her a ring, and if Percy knew anything about weddings, it was that there were supposed to be rings, and he just knew that his mother deserved the most beautiful one on the planet.
To top it all off, it was storming the day they got married. It wasn’t the light drizzle type of rain, either, but the kind that poured down in buckets and lasted for ages until Percy began to wonder where it all came from in the first place, and how it stayed up there.
He had tried to give his mom at least one happy memory about that day, he really had. Instead, all he’d managed was to get in yet another fight with Gabe that was only pacified by Sally pulling him away and grabbing the greasy walrus another beer fresh from the refrigerator.
“I know it’s hard, Percy, but someday you’ll understand why I had to do this,” she promised softly, once she’d pulled him into his room.
He’d returned her hug and they’d stood there for a quiet moment until Gabe yelled something from the living room and she’d left to go see what he wanted this time. Percy had curled up on his bed and drawn his knees into his chest, frowning in anger and wanting nothing more than for Gabe to go away.
Outside, the storm seemed to mirror his feelings; thunder boomed loudly (which was kind of odd, because he hadn’t seen any lightning), and the rain fell even harder against his window, but for once, Percy was too angry and confused to be scared of it.
iv. Nothing good ever happened during thunderstorms.
Percy’d figured that out by the time he was eleven; he wasn’t scared of them anymore, but he definitely had reason not to like them. When his class had arrived at Saratoga in time to see the first flashes of lightning in the distance, he should have known something was going to happen. Something always did.
“I’m sorry, Mom,” he mumbled yet again, slouched down in his seat with his face pressed against the back window of the cab.
“I know, Percy,” she replied with that world wise patience that she always had, even after everything he’d put her through.
“I wasn’t trying to do anything,” he said. “I don’t even know what happened. I just leaned on it for a minute, and then the bus exploded.”
Honestly, who kept loaded canons around middle school kids, anyway?
“It’s okay, sweetie. We’ll figure something out,” she promised, her words cut off by a peal of thunder overhead. “And I’ll start looking for a school for next year. It’ll all be fine.”
“Yeah,” he mumbled. “It’ll be great. Just like always. Wonder what I can blow up this time.”
She stopped as the cab pulled up the curb, and sighed; Sally dug through her purse for cash and handed it over before stepping out into the rain with Percy just behind her. Lightning illuminated the street for a minute and then faded again, the thunder reaching them just as Sally pulled open the door to their apartment building.
“Things will be better next year,” she promised as they started up the stairs.
“You say that every time, Mom.”
Sally sighed and looked at him resignedly, and decided to drop the subject for now.
“Come on,” she said finally. “I got some blue ice cream for you when I went to the store earlier.”
Despite everything, Percy couldn’t help but grin. “Really?”
“Yup. It’s in the freezer,” she replied with a small grin of her own. “I’ll race you to it.”
v. As he peeled his forehead off of the seat in front of him, all he could think about just how unfair it was that their car had to be hit by lightning at a time like this.
Waking up in the middle of the night to a freak hurricane, finding out that your best friend is actually half goat, and then you realizing some giant, hairy thing is out to kill you even though you have no idea what it is, let alone why it wants you dead, was bad enough by itself.
But then they were running, or trying to while carrying a half conscious satyr between them, and the giant thing kept chasing them until Percy could see that he was half bull, and suddenly the lightning part didn’t really seem so important anymore.
“Percy, go!” she was telling him to run again, even though she had to know that he wouldn’t. “Get over the property line, past that tree!”
“No! We can make it over, all of us!”
She took Grover and shouldered him by herself, dragging the moaning satyr up the slick slope towards the enormous pine she’d pointed out earlier. Behind them, the Minotaur was bellowing loud enough to be heard even over the thunder.
Everything was happening too fast when he was already so confused about what was going on, but then the thing was charging at him and he didn’t really have time to try and figure things out on his own. Percy’s mind unhelpfully played a mental rerun of the Running of the Bulls video he’d seen in school once, and reminded him of what happened to the people who didn’t get out of the way in time.
He jumped aside at the last minute and the Minotaur ran straight past him; for a minute, he almost let himself hope that things would work out after all, that they’d make it over the hill together and that the monster would have to go away or die or something, but then it changed direction to run towards his mother, and—
Lightning flashed over head as the Minotaur clenched its hand, and she vanished in a shower of golden sparks.
He wasn’t really sure how, but somehow all of the confusion and fear melted into an adrenaline fueled anger. The Minotaur was still terrifying, but Percy was too angry with it to care, and suddenly it was almost easy to kill it, bare handed or no. He’d killed it with a piece of its own horn and it had blown away as sand on the wind, leaving Percy behind to drag Grover along by himself, shivering in the rain, exhausted, and more confused and scared than ever.
But his mom was gone.
She’d always been his shield, against everything: she told the stories to distract him when he was scared; she’d beaten off all of the weird people who’d showed up and tried to stalk him, or just outright take him; she’d sacrificed everything for him by marrying Gabe, too, even if he didn’t – couldn’t – fully understand that.
But now the shield she’d offered was broken and gone, and as he collapsed on the front porch of the farmhouse, he wasn’t sure how he was supposed to go on without it.