The dry rustle of leaves was autumn music as they swirled in lazy circles on the vast front lawn. The wind, which should have been bitter, held unseasonable warmth and on the horizon, storm clouds began to grow. Ahead of the blooming thunderheads, wisps of clouds raced ahead, trailing ghostly fingers across the face of the full moon.
"Little Mouse, you're twelve years old. It's time to get over your fear of storms."
Jenn stood on the wrap-around porch, her arms held loosely around the column by the top of the stairs. She peered into the yard with trepidation. "I don't think this is a good idea," she whispered. The wind was trying to decide whether or not to grow steady, and once again, the leaves skittered about, singing their rustling song as they scraped across the driveway.
"Nonsense, no time like the present," Billy said as he stepped out of a particularly dark shadow. The light of the moon cast a silvery glow about the nightscape, giving the impression that the shadows were solid.
"Yeah, but what if I get struck by lightning? Or, what if a tree branch falls and kills me? Mom will kill you."
She was met by a soft chuckle. "You're stalling, Little Mouse. Come on out and stand by me. I won't leave your side. I assure you; you've never seen anything so beautiful."
"I still think this is a bad idea..." However, she minded her tall friend and slowly descended the few steps that led to the lawn. "And if I get killed, it's all on you, pal."
"There are worse things to worry about than a little lightning or a wayward falling branch," Billy answered, his bemusement nearly cloaked.
Jenn was small for her age in both height and build. Her long hair was wayward with loose natural curls and honey brown. She tilted her heart shaped face up to her friend and silently questioned him once again if this was indeed a wise idea.
Billy, who stood nearly six and a half feet tall, towered over her like a tall, slender mountain. His long moonlight pale hair would rustle briefly in the stuttering wind, fall to brush just below his hips, and then lift up and away again as another gust hit them full force. The ethereal light gave the young girl the illusion that his impressive mane was glowing. She was pulled out of her reverie at the first chuckle of thunder, still far off on the horizon.
"Easy," Billy said as he placed his hand upon her shoulder, holding her in place.
"It's getting closer," she whispered. "And it's after ten; I need to go to bed."
"It's after ten on a Friday night, you start your week-long Fall break on Monday, don't give me the "I've got to be in bed" spiel. You fight going to sleep tooth and nail on school nights."
"Yeah, but you usually don't have me standing in the dark waiting for me to die in a thunderstorm!" She regretted her words as soon as she had spoken them. "I don't like the thunder, it scares me the worst..."
"Then tonight, you will learn to face your fears. I'll have you dancing in them instead of cowering. You've great power in your heart, Little Mouse." Tilting his head, he cut his near black eyes down to her, the fire normally flickering in them more subdued as he tried to reassure her that she was safe.
"Okay, but when it starts to rain?"
"We'll go sit on the porch swing, but until then, stand here and stay with me."
Jenn closed her eyes, inhaled a great breath and then held it as she nodded once.
"You can be brave," Billy said as lightning touched the clouds that were rapidly spreading towards them like a bad idea.
"Momma says to count at the first flash of lightning, and when the thunder sounds, whatever number I got to, is how many miles away the storm is..."
"I've heard that the closer the thunder is to the lightning, the closer the storm is to you,"
"That's kind of the same thing, isn't it?"
"You can look at it that way." Billy turned his face forward, his eyes growing soft at the centuries old Victorian home.
"Some people name their houses," Jenn spoke up. The statement was so on point and so sudden that for a moment, Billy almost accused her of reading his mind.
"They did, do you know the name of your home?"
Jenn shook her head and then tilted her face to gaze up to her friend. "It has a name?"
"Heartstead?" she asked in disbelief, her nose wrinkling. "Why would anyone name it Heartstead?"
"My mother named it that," he said. "She was born in Sweden, but came to America when she was a young girl. Her father built it for her mother; you'll notice some lovely Scandinavian architecture to it. Anyway, she always told me that the first time she heard the phrase "Home is where the heart is." she fell in love with it. And that's when she decided to name this place Heartstead, instead of just calling it the family homestead."
"That makes sense," Jenn reasoned. "You don't talk about your mom much..."
"No," he answered in a near whisper.
"Because, I miss her so much, it's just best not to bring her up."
"But she still sends you gifts, doesn't she?"
"She does, and like any good mother, she chides me about not writing as often as I should. It's hard to do when you've got other things on your plate."
"It's too bad that you can't call her."
"That's life," Billy said softly. "Look, more lightning."
"Brighter this time," Jenn said with a frown. She fought the desire to fidget as Billy continued to hold her shoulder in a firm grip.
"Brighter, louder," he murmured as a rumble spread over the night sky like distant cannon fire. "Oooh, that was a good one. This storm has some bite to it!"
"Okay, so, I've stood out here with you for this long, isn't that enough?"
"No, if I let you leave now, I'll never get you to progress further," Billy said as wind gusted towards them hard enough to kick up dust from the driveway. Jenn closed her eyes as they were stung from the onslaught and then briskly rubbed her face.
"This isn't fair... I want to go in! Please?"
"Easy," Billy said once more, drawing the word out in a soothing tone as if trying to calm a spooking horse.
"Okay, but just for a little bit more, then, I'm going back inside," she said. The edge of panic caused her voice to creep up an octave higher and beneath his hand; Billy could feel her begin to tremble.
"Why are you afraid of them? What, exactly, is it that you fear?"
"I don't know," Jenn whispered, her eyes glued to the sky. The moonlight was beginning to dull as the clouds grew closer. "I don't know," she repeated.
"It's not the sound, sound can't harm you."
"I don't like it; it's too sudden and too loud and sometimes it does hurt, right here," she spoke rapidly as she tented her fingers and placed them over her breastbone. "There was one clap of thunder when I was a little girl, I'd bet a million dollars that it was right on top of the house, and it really did hurt. I've never felt anything like that before!"
"Were you afraid of storms before then?"
She shrugged her free shoulder and took a step closer to the tall blond as lightning began to chase itself in the rapidly approaching clouds. "No, I don't guess so."
"Then you're afraid of what you don't expect, is that so?"
"What I don't expect?"
"You don't expect the thunder to be so loud, or to come when it does. You just know that it will because the lightning tattles on it. So you sit and you wait and you fear and you dread," Billy said. His grip on her shoulder released so he could put his arm around them. "You need to see the beauty in storms; they don't want your fear."
"Storms... can't want my fear," she said as she gave him an odd look.
"Ah ha," he said softly.
"Storms don't want my fear..."
"Therefore," Billy said, rolling his free hand at his wrist in an urge to keep her mental progress going forward.
"So I shouldn't fear them?"
"Exactly. A storm doesn't know that you're scared of it. It just goes about its own business with no thought or care in the world. You fear it, you love it, makes no difference because a storm is just what it is. You're only harming yourself if you're afraid. You harm your mind and your heart and eventually, the stress will harm your body. Don't be afraid of something that isn't even aware it's causing you to be frightened."
"Yeah, but what about when the thunder is so loud that it rattles the windows?"
"What about when you and your sister are fighting so loud it rattles the windows? You're not afraid of sudden loud noises then. Or when you're running about the house like a pack of mad bulls, rattling more than windows, but also the teeth of everyone in this county. You're not afraid of loud noises then."
"I don't know, it's just different," she tried to explain. The faint sound of an airplane, far away in the distance, was drowned out by another grumble of thunder. She pressed closer to Billy's side.
"It's only different if you let it be different," he said.
"I can't do this," she whispered. "I don't know why I let you talk me into this..." She moved to pull away from his side, but Billy was quick. Kneeling down, he took her by the biceps and held her still as he made eye contact with her.
"Jendra, listen to me; you're alright," he said firmly. "You're safe; it's not going to hurt you."
"You're wrong!" she cried out as she tried to struggle out of his grasp. "The trees are going to fall! They're going to crash down into the roof and tear the house apart! Lightning will strike me and kill me! A tornado will come through and wipe us all out!"
"Jendra," Billy repeated, keeping his voice calm. He longed to pull her into his arms and hold her until her fear subsided, but he knew that would only reinforce her fears. "Storms have come and gone since this house was built. Don't you think in over two hundred years, something would have brought it down by now? Hm?"
Tears were forming in her amber eyes and her face was a crumpled mask of agony as she looked into his face. "But you died in a storm." Her words were mumbled as she bit her lower lip in an attempt to keep it from trembling.
"I did," he said gently. "But the storm didn't kill me, a bullet did. And when I tell you that you're safe with me, you're safe with me. I thought you trusted me. After all, I'm your go-to guy to get rid of that monster in your closet every night. Right?" His tone was gentle and cajoling and he would have gladly mauled any of his friends if they had seen the more tender side to the high-spirited ghost. But with Jenn, one of his dearest friends, he had no qualms about being kind. "After the hell we went through with that bad ghost that tried to kill you guys, wasn't I there to protect you?"
She nodded her head slowly, the misery of fear still planted firmly on her sweet face.
"Then," he said as he curled his index finger and thumb and gently chucked her chin. "No more of this silly afraid of storms nonsense. You've seen and experienced much worse than a little thunder and lightning, you've walked through hell and back and came out with your head held high."
"Yeah," she agreed as she brusquely wiped away a wayward tear that had the audacity to trail down her cheek.
"Yeah," he echoed as he reached out to rid her of its twin, and then rose to turn towards the house. "C'mon, the rain's gonna start soon. Let's sit on the porch, kick our feet up and enjoy it."
She gave that a long thought, and then reached out, taking his hand in hers. "Alright, I promise I'll stay out here but if the rain does what it sometimes does and goes on the porch, deals off."
"Agreed," he said, and then slowly floated back to the porch, holding Jenn's hand to reassure her that he would always keep her, and her family, as safe as ghostly possible.