A woman and her child stepped out into the cool evening air, onto the front porch of the small farmhouse. They sat on a step and gazed up at the stars. The woman leaned forward and propped her chin in her hands.
The little girl looked up at her mother and said solemnly, “Mommy, I miss daddy.”
“I know, Rachael” Cindy Tinney said. “I do, too. I do too.” She stroked the back of Rachael’s hair, and the familiar sadness briefly flowed through her. “But I’ll just bet he’s watching us right now, seeing just how cute you are! And I’ll just bet -”
“Mommy, what kind of star is that?” Rachael pointed up and to the left.
Cindy stared up at the bright star hanging in the darkened sky. It did not hang among the other stars, for it looked much too close. Its light shot out in bright spikes, the largest, brightest object in the sky. “I don’t know,” she said slowly.
Its intensity caught her gaze hypnotically as it began to move. At first, she thought it a trick of her eyes; she looked over at another set of dimmer stars, and where the star was in accordance to them.
The shining star that hung far above a tree-line about fifty yards away (the star was not nearly as close) began to descend, slowly but evidently. It went lower than the stars she had been judging its height with, and she was flabbergasted.
She watched in awe as it continued its descent. “I think it’s a UFO or something, sweetie! Just look at that!”
The little girl gawked upward, her mouth hanging wide open.
As the star neared the tree line, a thought abruptly crossed Cindy’s mind: My camera! I need to go get my camera! She considered how close it was to the trees, and decided she had no time. She mentally kicked herself for not running for it sooner.
The star reached the tree line and disappeared behind it. Cindy sighed heavily and took Rachael by the hand. “Let’s go inside, little one.”
“But I wanna see more stars,” Rachael implored.
“I don’t think we’re going to see any more like that one tonight, Rachael. Let’s go.”
The storm hit without warning, like a time bomb, and left an embarrassed and perplexed radio weatherman wondering that if perhaps he had spent less time in his office with the hidden bottle and more time studying the charts that were coming in from ambient stations, he might have had a good chance to at least give warning. In this small town, his sources were limited at best.
It came with a force the residents of Junction had not seen in years. In fact, only the eldest of men and women could recall such a tumultuous outburst.
The weatherman spent the rest of his shift in his tiny office, drinking, and wondering when good ol’ Stu, the station manager was going to come in and fire him. In the meantime, the anchorwoman would have to carry the news until Bill came back, or perhaps someone else. With that bottle in his hand, it wouldn’t be long before he would not be able to come back at all.
Seconds later, Good ‘Ol Stu walked through the door, saw Bill Crenshaw sitting on the floor with a shit-eating grin and Chinese eyes, and very calmly, collectively said, “You’re fired. Get your things and please leave the building, Bill. I’ll get the rest of your pay for you.”
“Oh good, my pay,” Bill said. “My measly fucking excuse for a paycheck.”
Clara Barker had been hanging sheets on the clothesline when the cold breeze picked up, bending trees and dropping the temperature considerably. She felt a few rain drops and cursed the weather under her Rachaelth while she began removing the sheets and putting them right back into the basket. She picked up the basket and abruptly dropped it when the rain literally hit like a hammer. She ran for the safety of the house, and was soaked by the time she was inside, watching the onslaught from her living room window.
She grabbed a towel from the linen closet, returned to the window, to dry off and stare in awe at the rain that seemed to be dropping by the tons.
Black clouds flowed over a once clear sky, and Clara thought how odd it was that the sky would be so dark in the middle of the day. The clouds grew and drifted past.
On the other side of town, Seth Sutter was in the middle of plowing a field for planting when the storm hit. Being the hardcore farmer that he was, something he had been his entire life (his father had pounded that type of mentality into his brain from an early age. Work just didn’t get done without this type of thinking), he kept right on plowing in the rain on his old John Deere; that is, of course, until the lightning bolts practically chased him into his barn.
“Holy shit,” he muttered, soaked to the nuts, watching the rain and lightning from the safety of the barn.
Seth nearly evacuated in his overalls as an intense bolt shot down and destroyed his tractor. Before he really had time to react, however, he saw something that made his heart jump. Someone was running across the field, slipping and sliding in the downpour. Lightning was striking more frequently and seemingly randomly. This lightning was…different somehow.
Get out of there you damned fool!
And then his mouth dropped when he realized it was his own son running the gauntlet across the field – bolts were striking everywhere as Jake Sutter passed the smoking remains of the tractor.
Seth shoved the barn doors open wider and yelled at the top of his lungs. “Hurry up, Jake! Hurry, for God’s sake!”
He stood just inside the barn as his son grew nearer. The sky had turned an ugly black, clouds turning and twisting into themselves, in constant motion as if alive. The rain fell in torrents, and Seth watched his son splash through ankle-deep mud as he made his way to the barn.
“Hurry, Jake! You’re almost here! C’mon son!”
Jake sloshed through the mud, stopping just short of the barn doors. He bent over, hands on knees, sucking in deep Rachaelths. “I’m ok, Dad. I’m ok.”
Seth pushed open the barn door even wider, expecting his son his son to walk in and say something like. “This is one hell of a downpour!”
As Jake stood in the pouring rain catching his Rachaelth, a jagged bolt of lightning stretched down from the boiling clouds and obliterated Jake. Seth was knocked back by the jolt, blinded by the intense light, hair and eyebrows singed.
The blindness persisted for a short while, but when he was able to see somewhat, he stood and made his way to where he had last seen Jake standing. Blood had been scattered out in a circular pattern, and even in the rain, a large patch of ground had small wisps of smoke struggling up against the torrent. There were other items still smoking as well, a great heat battling against the onslaught of the rain – lying in the mud before the barn doors were Jake’s tattered steel-toed work boots, harboring his smoldering legs halfway up the shin, where the wounds had been cauterized black.
A few locals ambled along Two Fork’s small Main Street, stopping to look in windows, or have a quick chat with a neighbor. A woman and her child appeared from Junction Market, the woman carrying two paper shopping bags, and walked a short way down the street toward their car.
Cindy Tinney had her hand on the door handle, when she heard old Jason Hearlty make a comment across the street in front of the barbershop.
“Well, will you look at that,” he grumbled, and picked himself up off the bench for a better look.
Cindy looked up at the raging black clouds flying overhead. Her face looked confused; she had never seen clouds act this way before, moving in so rapidly, as if attacking the sky. The little blonde-haired girl was amazed, filled with childlike curiosity.
“Look mommy, the clouds are weird.”
Cindy glanced down at her, and again at the quickly darkening sky. “I know, sweetie. Let’s hurry home.”
She switched a bag to her other arm, and fished in her purse for her car keys. Jason piped up from across the street again. “My God in heaven, ain’t never seen such ugly lookin’ things!”
Cindy looked over at him and saw him close to the street, his head craned back as he watched the sky.
“Nope. Ain’t never se-”
In a split second, a jagged blot of thick, blinding lightning struck him and spread him like shrapnel. The ground shook as the sound concussion was deafening, and the little girl ran behind Cindy.
“Mommy, mommy!” As if signaled from her cry, rain burst forth, hitting the earth like a hammer.
“C’mon, Rachael!” she almost screamed, and grabbed the girls’ hand before almost dragging her back into the market. There were shouts along the street, bodies rushing for cover. Cindy and little Rachael rushed in wide-eyed, speechless.
Carl Miner was behind the checkout counter, helping Mrs. Hagley put her things gently into a bag. The old woman was very particular about the way things had to be bagged. She had a gnarled finger pointed at Carl as the glass front market door burst open, and the stiffening wind blew the two dripping girls back inside.
“Well, what’s the matter with you two?” he asked, his smile long under his bald head.
“The lightning!” Cindy said. Her chest heaved in excitement. “The lightning just hit Jason! Oh my God!”
A concerned looking couple approached from one of the small isles. The two really reflected the ambience of the town, he with his potbelly bulging under his overalls and white tee shirt, she in her long flowered dress. A wire shopping basket dangled from the bend her arm. She wrapped her other arm around her husband’s and yanked him closer.
“My lord, we heard!” she exclaimed.
“Those darned windows rattled, thought they was gonna Rachaelk,” Mrs. Hagley croaked.
Carl hurried over to the windows. “Those are some clouds. Where’s Jason, Cindy? He might need help.”
“He’s gone.” She picked up Rachael and pulled her close. “He like, blew up!” she said, static fright emanating from her. She stood there shaking, looking around the store. “He just…blew up!”
“He’s dead? Well, I better go have a look,” Carl said, making for the door. Cindy quickly jumped into his way, her wet clothes dotting the floor. Rachael just stared, her hair in strings.
“You can’t go out there, there’s lightning.”
“Carl, are you gonna finish helpin’ me? The cat needs feedin’”
“Just a moment, Mrs. Hagley.” He glanced over at Joe and Ilene Jenkins. “You folks just go about your business. I’ll be right back. Watch out, Cindy.”
He gently nudged her aside and pushed open the door.
“Please don’t go out there,” she implored.
“It’s alright, I tell ya.”
Lightning streaked down from the now blackened sky, and a moment later, thunder rumbled across the landscape. Main Street was empty, only populated with a few fragmented faces occupying store windows. Carl dared outside just a step, still holding the door open; little rain pelted him here. He tilted his head toward the sky. Thunder complained distantly. He looked back over his shoulder at those inside the store.
“See, I told ya it was ok.”
The blinding light, the crack of thunder, was instantaneous. A crooked finger of light shot down with such blinding speed, it was over before anyone could even react. Carl’s body split apart into smoldering pieces, sizzling as the rain drowned them on the cement outside.
The building shook, sending Mrs. Hagley to the floor. The storefront windows cracked, one shedding large, pointed pieces to the floor, where they shattered. Cold wind flowed in through the opening, bringing rain with it, spraying those standing near.
Cindy turned Rachael away and hurried toward the rear of the store. Joe Jenkins’ ducked, pulling his wife down with him. He put one protective arm over their heads. Ilene dropped her basket, and it clattered to the dirty white linoleum, canned vegetables rolling around haphazardly.
After the initial shock, Joe removed his arm and precariously raised his head. His graying hair stood up on his thick head as if he had just awoken.
“Just what in the hell was that?” he said, slowly rising. Ilene said nothing; merely stared at the spot where only a moment before Carl Miner had been standing. Wind and rain blew in, dampening the glass littered floor.
They all stood dazed, the dazzling white flash still painted in their eyes.
Mrs. Hagley was trying to push herself up; her faded blue dress was twisted around her legs, and one of her black, slip-on shoes had come off her left foot, revealing an unwashed white anklet sock.
Joe shook himself loose from Ilene, and she tried to snatch one of his coverall straps.
“Where you goin?” she asked, panic in her eyes.
“She needs help, dear.”
Cindy was still holding Rachael, stroking her hair. The two lived alone in a small farmhouse just outside of town. Her husband, Robert Tinney, had passed from cancer only a year before, and it was situations like this (though nothing had quite come close to this) when she had needed him most. She looked at Rachael’s worried face, a child’s confusion; and she thanked God that the girl still had her.
In a small office, in the equally as small radio station KXXL, Bill Crenshaw and Stu Webster were still in heated discussion regarding Bill’s impending change in employment. Bill stood, and staggered sideways.
“You see? This is utter bullshit, Bill,” Stu said, arms crossed. At twenty-five years old, he was seven years younger than Bill, which had always been a determining factor in their relationship as boss and employee.
Bill stood there grinning in is KXXL tee shirt, half-empty whisky bottle on his cluttered desk.
“What do you expect, working in this hick town station?” Bill slurred, smiling.
“I expect you to treat your employer with respect, Bill. And you’re making me look bad, because I got you the fucking job!”
“Yes, you did, Stu. I will admit, you got me the job,” he said bowing. He picked up the whisky bottle and took a swig. “You just failed to mention what a fucking dump this place is.”
“You wanted the job, you asshole! Please, Stu. Please, I swear, I’ll do a good job. What a load of crap that was. Bill, don’t make this hard. I just need you to get your stuff and get out. Go back to the city, Bill. You belong there.”
Bill raised the bottle, pointing at Stu. “So, not only are you firing me, you kicking me out of the house? Wow, what a friend!”
Another big swig. Thunder erupted distantly.
Stu looked around at the ceiling, acknowledging the thunder. “You can have a little time, Bill. I’m not that big of a prick. If you need help getting your things back to Iowa City, we can use my truck.”
“I think I’ve had enough of your help for a fucking lifetime. You are an asshole.” Bill slurred his words, and swayed slightly in a pathetic attempt at gaining control. He went to his desk, and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He lighted one and blew the smoke upward. “Oh, sorry. I forgot. No smoking in the building. Gee, I better go outside.” Bill made for the door, trailing smoke and mumbling.
“Bill, just grab your shit and go,” Stu called out after him. Bill mere waved an arm, and vanished around the corner. A second later, a blonde-haired woman appeared in the doorway.
“I guess you and I will have to cover for him for now,” she said.
“Yep. He’s being an idiot right now, Connie. I better go talk to him. He needs to go before we all get fired.”
“Go. I need my job.”
Stu went out into the hall just as the outside entrance was closing. Through the glass, he saw that it had darkened outside. He went out, and saw Bill standing in the parking lot, looking up. Rain suddenly burst, and Stu yelled, “Bill, come inside!” Connie was holding the door open, waiting for any new development.
“Fuck you, Stu. I’m gonna get in my car, and go get my stuff. And then I’ll be out of your hair, friend!”
Stu examined the sky. A black cloud cover now blotted out any resonance of blue. Thunder cracked, and he turned his attention the Bill.
“Bill, just get inside. You want to get hit by lightning, or something?”
Bill looked at both of them. His hair was plastered against his head and his clothes were almost entirely soak; Stu suffered the same consequences, but he nevertheless attempted to get through to Bill.
“Come on, Bill! You going to stand out here all fucking day and get soaked? You’re acting like an idiot!”
Bill walked toward him, shaking his head. “After this, I never want to hear, or see from either one of you. Understood?”
Connie said, “Yes, Bill we -”
A thin bolt of lightning split Bill in two, his halves falling to the wet pavement, spilling out some of his internal works. At the same time, thunder rocked like the hammer of Thor, and both of them put their hands to their ears. Stu struggled to the open door, and he and Connie rushed inside. They looked at each other, a white flash the forefront of their visions.
Rain pelted what was left of Bill, and it washed away the two pools of blood under his halves.
“Oh my God!” Connie cried, and Stu put his arm around her. “He’s dead, Stu! He’s dead!”
“I know, Connie. Try to calm down a little ‘till we figure out what to do.”
“That’s easy for you to say, you hated him!”
“I didn’t hate him!” Stu retorted, letting go of her. “He just fucked up, Connie. That’s all. It’s not like I wanted this to happen.”
“Sorry, I’m just a little freaked out.”
“So am I. There was something strange about that lightning. Didn’t you notice?”
“I don’t know, it was just…lightning.”
“No, Connie. It didn’t look the same. Can’t put my finger on it. And the thunder.”
“What about it, Stu? Lightning just struck.” Her eyes widened as the image of Bill out in the rain filled her thoughts.
“I have a friend that was struck by lightning, and it didn’t make a sound.”
“How could it not make a sound?”
“I don’t know, Connie. Maybe because you’re right there when it hits. Sound moves pretty fast. But that was like a fuckin’ bomb!”
They both stood in the doorway, watching the rain pour down, trying to block out the remains of Bill lying on the asphalt.
“What are we gonna do?” she asked.
“Let’s go inside and call the sheriff.”
Stu pulled his cell phone from his pants pocket and pulled up the correct number. He pushed send, and put it to his ear. Then he looked at the screen. “No signal or something. Must be the storm.”
Stu grabbed Connie’s hand and led her back into Bill’s office. He picked up the phone and put it to his ear – no dial tone.
“Nothing?” Connie asked.
“What do we do now?”
“Let’s try the other phones in the building. There are two or three, right. Your office, my office, and the broadcast room.”
“They’re probably dead.” she said.
Stu gently lifted her head by her chin. “It can’t hurt to try, can it?”
“No, I suppose not.”
“Ok, then. Let’s go check ‘em”
Clara Barker went into the bedroom and changed into dry clothes. She threw the wet ones into a hamper. She could hear the rain hammering the roof, and resounding thunder. She returned to the living room window, and watched the dirt road that lead to the house.
Chaz had gone into town only an hour before to pick up a part for the old truck parked next to the house. It was a pet project of his; he had been working on it for what seemed like forever, and it did run, but Chaz was never satisfied.
“I just need to do a few more things to it, dear, and it’ll run great. You’ll see.”
“It’s downright ugly, Chaz. Let’s just junk it. It makes the property look ugly.”
“Ya’ can’t even see it from the road, Clara. It’ll be done soon.”
“That’s what you said two months ago, Chaz. If your gonna fix it, why not sell it, then?”
“Sell my truck? Are you crazy?”
Clara saw something approaching on the dirt lane. It was a large, black dog, pitiful looking as it trotted along through the mud. “Oh, poor thing,” she said, and went out onto the front porch. Rain throttled the overhang.
“Here, boy. Over here. C’mon!” she called out. She stretched out her arms in welcome.
Lightning scattered the dog mid-stride.
“Oh, my lord!” Clara said, closing her eyes to the flash and ensuing thunder. When she looked back, the dog was gone. “I can’t believe that. What are the chances? Poor doggie!” Clara went back inside, shaking her head. Just wait until Chaz got back from town. She would have some story to tell him.
She plopped down on the couch and picked up the remote for the TV. She pushed the power button, but nothing happened. She got up and tried the switch on the TV. There was no picture.
“Oh, just great.” Clara tried the telephone and got nothing. “Hummmm.”
She stepped out on the porch and put her hands on her hips. The rain had slowed to a drizzle, and she ventured to the steps and put out her palm. Only miniscule droplets beaded her hand. She regarded the large puddle that had been growing in front of her porch. Hardly a drop. The sky was a solid white mass.
”Well, good lord, I’m glad that’s over,” she said.
Shaking her head at the puddle, she went inside and to the back door. She opened the screen door and again peered at the white boiling mass of sky. “Oh well,” she muttered. “These things are gonna take two days to dry now.”
When Clara reached the basket, she picked it up, and immediately plopped it down on the soggy grass.
“Damned wet sheets!”
She grabbed the edge of a sheet, and curiously dared one more look at the sky.
Seth could not fathom what had just happened to his son. He only stood and stared at the boots and partial shins jutting out of them. His jaw trembled as he came close to tears.
“Jake. My son.”
The rain was letting up, and Seth noticed the clouds had turned white, turning and twisting in an odd fashion, indeed. They spat out lightning across the distance, thunder rumbling softly. It mesmerized Seth, and he unknowingly walked toward the wide-open entrance and the barnyard.
He nudged one Jake’s boots, and it fell over into the mud. He snapped out of his reverie and found himself standing exactly where Jake had been standing. Thunder rumbled and Seth suddenly tensed like a cat about to take flight. He snatched the rest of Jake’s left leg and leaped back into the barn as a bolt crashed into the mud about ten feet from the entrance. The heat blew past Seth and singed the hair on the back of his head as deafening thunder rocked the barn. He dropped the leg and put his hands over his head.
When the worst had passed, he looked down at the booted leg lying in the dirt. One leg stood just outside, as if waiting permission to step inside the protection of the barn.
If I just move as fast as I can, I can get it. I know I can. I can’t let the rest of my son just sit out there…
Seth moved to the doorway; thunder mumbled across the plains, a grim reminder of the impending danger. Regardless, Jake’s remains took precedence. He positioned himself as a runner might before the starting pistol signaled the start, and then…
The small group inside Junction Grocery, watching solemnly as the rain began to wane.
“Well, that’s a good sign, isn’t?” Joe Jenkins asked to no one in particular.
“Mommy, I wanna go home,” little Rachael said.
Cindy rubbed the top of her head. “We will soon, hon. I promise.” She turned to say something to the others, when loud thunder interrupted her. They heard a vehicle approaching, horn honking incessantly. Cindy went to one side of the broken out window and peered up Main Street. Thunder rocked the store, and she heard voices from across the street voicing disdain.
Thunder resounded again, amidst it the roar of an engine growing louder. Then Cindy saw the vehicle – it was Chaz Barker in his old pick up. Her mouth dropped open; lightning was following Chaz as he zigzagged down Main Street. The bolts had blackened the tailgate of the truck, striking dangerously close to the two fuel tanks on either side of the truck’s bed.
Chaz honked frantically, and Cindy saw the faces of the onlookers across the street watching nervously through the gaping hole that used to be the window – she saw the barber, Manny Wilson, rubbing his hands together nervously.
Now all the citizens along Main Street had their hands over their ears, trying desperately to block the horrendous waves of sound bursting through the air. Chaz swerved toward the grocery, and for a moment, Cindy thought he might have had designs on driving right into the store. She held her Rachaelth, and at the last minute, Chaz swerved right, straight toward a telephone pole in front of the barbershop. As he did so, a jagged bolt of blinding light struck the rear of the truck. Chaz slammed on the brakes, and was out of the vehicle before it had a chance to stop. Cindy watched in horror as the confused Chaz Barker, instead of rushing directly into the barbershop or the floral shop next door, bolted across the street toward the grocery. In a split second a burst of light reached down from the whitening cloud cover, and she waiting for the inevitable. Instead, the lightning struck the top of the telephone pole, and the bewildered man leaped through the opening and into the store, sliding across the floor and into a check-out counter with loud humph!”
Joe Jenkins was the first to respond. “Chaz! Chaz! You ok?”
Chaz rolled onto his back, and lay there speechless, his chest heaving for air. Finally, he looked over at Joe, and said, “I-I think so. What in God’s name is goin’ on?”
“We don’t know, Chaz. Storm just came in, pourin’ rain, and lightnin’. Lightnin’ killin’ folks!”
“I need to get the hell outta’ here and back to my place!” Mrs. Hagley exclaimed. “I ain’t dyin’ here, for Christ’s sake!”
Cindy approached the old woman. “Mrs. Hagley, none of us are going anywhere for the moment! Just calm down, so we can figure this out, please!”
“Well, whatever you say, girl, but I ain’t stayin’ forever.”
Cindy saw Ilene Jenkins standing anxiously at the end of an isle, and she saw Rachael sitting nearby, her hands still over her ears. She helped the little girl up, and hefted her into her arms. “You ok, honey? Mommy’s gotcha’”
“I’m scared, mommy! The thunders are gonna get us! And the lightnings!”
“Nothing’s gonna get us, honey. Don’t you worry, I’ve got ya’.”
Cindy looked around at the gather of frightened folks: Joe and Ilene Jenkins stood near the front of one of the isles, clutching each other tightly. Mrs. Hagley was sitting in a plastic chair she had pulled from a stack near the west wall of the store. Chaz Barker was trying to pull himself together, wiping bits of glass and dirt off of himself. He kept staring out the window silently, and it was clear that he was thinking of Clara. Cindy was saddened at the desperation he felt, what everyone felt; and especially her little girl. This obviously was a most frightening experience for her.
Cindy went to the window and waved to the man in the window at the barber shop.
How many others were doing this along Main Street, she thought.
The rain had let up, and all was suddenly quiet. It was ominous and threatening, as if simply waiting for someone to dare expose himself. She turned toward the others.
“We need a radio, or a TV! I’ll just bet there’s a TV somewhere, maybe back in the manager’s office. We need to find out what’s going on.”
“I’ll go take a look,” Joe said, but Ilene wouldn’t loosen her grip. You let go of me woman, you’re gonna be fine. This is important!” Ilene withdrew her arms, and Joe kissed her on the cheek. “I’ll be right back, dear. You just wait here for me.”
Thunder rumbled softly from places unknown, and Cindy thanked God the lightning wasn’t striking here at the moment. She thought about something: If the bolts came down right here, why were they experiencing such intense sounds like bombs exploding? Didn’t sound travel quickly? Quick enough to pass right by them, so someone perhaps five miles away could count the miles as the thunder reached them.
Chaz struggled to sit up against a counter. “My wife is home alone. I need to help her.”
“It’s decent that you want to help your wife, but maybe she’s already gone, Chaz. I’m sorry if it offends you, but Clara is a pretty head strong person. She may have gone outside to do something or another – we just don’t know.”
“She’s alive, damnit! She’s back at the house waiting for me. And I’m gonna go back.”
“Chaz, please, I begging you, wait until we at least get the TV or radio going, so went know exactly what’s going on. We’ll at least try to figure something out.”
Chaz leaned against a counter. “Ok, your right, Cindy. I’ll calm down, try to figure out a game plan for all of us to follow.”
Cindy forced a weak smile. “Good man, Chaz.”
Joe returned from the back of the store. “There’s a radio back there, but all I get is static.”
“We’ll just have to keep trying,” Cindy said, viewing all the worried faces.
At the radio station, all was quiet, save for the rumbling of lightning everywhere. The ground shook, yet there was no lightning.
“Maybe we should go outside,” Connie remarked.
“Connie, you know what’s outside. Are you crazy?”
“But the rain has stopped. Maybe the lightning, too.”
Stu looked around frantically. “I cannot believe that every single phone is dead. Let’s keep checking, and we need to find a radio or TV. I’ll just bet, Connie, that everyone else in town is doing the same thing. Let’s just keep trying, ok?”
Connie moved close to Stu. “I’m scared, Stu. I’m afraid we’re gonna die,” she said, her voice reflecting fear. Stu put his arms around her, and hugged her closely.
“We’re gonna be ok, Connie.”
“Hold me, Stu.” She pushed herself closer against him.
He put his arms around her, and she gripped him tightly. Normally, Stu would have had other thoughts – but the vision of lightning shooting down and splitting Bill kept coursing through his mind. He gently held her, and rubbed her back. “We’ll get through this, Connie. Don’t worry. Right now, we’ll stay inside and figure this thing out, ok?”
She looked up at his face, tears rolling down her checks. She pecked him on the cheek and stepped back. “Thanks, Stu.”
“It’s ok, Connie. I won’t let anything happen.” He thought for a moment. “Did we check Bill’s office?”
“I didn’t. But wouldn’t all the phones be out, if one was? I mean, aren’t they all on the same line?”
“Maybe, but just in case, go check. I’m gonna’ look around to make sure we covered everything.”
Connie scurried off down the hall, and Stu strode down the hall to make one more check. He went to the outside exit and poked his head out to look around; the rain had indeed, ceased altogether, but the clouds still boiled overhead. Across the parking lot, the two parts of Bill lie on the wet pavement, in a pool of blood that had not been completely ran off in the rain. He thought again about the lightning.
Lightning just doesn’t explode like a bomb if it’s right there, it’s just a flash, a giant spark of electricity, he thought. He rushed into the broadcast office, and turned on the TV that sat on a stand outside the booth. At first, static – he grabbed to remote a switched stations, and a picture form a local station appeared, with two reporters holding microphones and speaking into the camera. Emergency broadcast information scrolled across the bottom of the screen. He turned up the volume:
“Reports have been pouring in from all over the country, and as far as we can tell right now, this is not isolated to just the United States. The strange phenomena has claimed countless lives, and still no one can figure out just what is causing this strange lightning, or the bizarre cloud formations. We are going to switch you now to the White House, where another press conference regarding foreign affairs had been scheduled for this morning.”
The scene switched to a briefing room in the Whitehouse, where a mob of reporters stood facing the podium, frantically digging out notebooks and cameras. A man in a suit approached the podium, and held up his hands. The room fell quiet, and he momentarily gazed around at the faces.
”Please, hold your questions until I have finished with the statement. After that, I will be happy to answer what I can. The president has issued a state of emergency for the entire country, and that includes Alaska and Hawaii.”
A flurry of voices rose in response.
“Please! I said to hold your questions! I will tell you what we know so far.” The Press Secretary waited until all again went silent. “As I said, the president has issued a state of emergency. No states have implemented marshal law. I repeat, normal law enforcement is still in effect until further notice. The strange weather phenomena are not isolated to the United States. Reports are coming in from all over the country. People are urged to stay inside, and under cover until further notice. Until that time, I will repeat, regular law enforcement is still in effect until the cause of this strange weather anomaly can be ascertained, and a solution found. The good news is, occurrences seem to be slowing down. In the meantime, the president urges all citizens to remain calm, and wait for information. I will now answer what questions I can.”
Stu glanced behind him, and saw Connie standing in the doorway, watching the broadcast. He waved her over, and put his arm around her shoulders as they watched in silence, their faces solemn.
A woman reporter jumped up from her chair. “In light of what has been going on with Iran and North Korea, could this be a new weapon?”
The man looked around at all the reporters. “Let me clear one thing up – all efforts have been made to clear these issues up peacefully. There have been no threats to the United States.”
“So, you’re saying that after all the efforts made by people to control weather, this is not a threat? What about the rest of the world?” A male reporter blurted out, stirring up mumbling among his colleagues. A flurry of voices ensued.
“Calm down, please!” The Press Secretary held up his arms. “At this point, communications outside the country have been futile. We are still working on that. Right now, we don’t know what the anomalies are, if they are natural or artificial.”
“Just like that,” the same reporter declared. ”All of the sudden, it may not even be real!”
“Look, people are always trying to create hoaxes. You, of all people should realize this.”
“You know, it’s just like the government to play dumb!”
“I have told you everything we know at this point. We will have another conference as soon as we know more. I’m afraid that’s all of the questions I can take right now. And since you are going to be here for a while, I suggest you relax and get something to eat.”
He walked away among a clamor of raised voices, and the picture turned to static for an instant until switching back to the local newsroom. The male reporter was standing there, looking rather confused. From off camera, someone spoke, and he looked up. “Well, there you have it. The official statement from the Whitehouse, urging everyone to stay inside until everything is declared safe. They confirmed that reports issued state that the bizarre lightning strikes seem to be slowing for the most part, but for now, a state of emergency is still in effect. The Whitehouse says that the anomalies may not even be real…”
Connie turned to Stu. “I found a phone that works,” she said, grasping his arm.
“Well, why didn’t you say so?”
“You were watching the TV!”
He shook his head. “Where?”
“Bill’s office. I got a dial tone.”
Out at the Barker farm, Clara had her hand on the edge of a damp sheet in the clothes basket. She could feel an electric charge in the air, raising the hair on the back of her head. She dropped the sheet, and thought: oh, my Lord…
Thoughts of lightning striking the dog ran through her mind as she hurried toward the back door. She ran inside, letting the screen door slam shut. She hesitated to catch her Rachaelth, and returned to the screen door. It grew darker outside, and she could still smell that familiar dirty smell that always accompanied rain. The white clouds darkened and grew calm, and Clara’s eyes widened as she saw something form in the clouds. Her thoughts turned to the storm doors that jutted out of the ground far beyond the clotheslines.
She wrapped her arms around herself as more formed, stretching downward…
What in God’s name…
Seth dashed for Jakes other leg; how odd it was to see a leg standing there, minus the rest of the person. His son! “Oh, God,” he muttered under his Rachaelth as he grabbed the leg and leaped through the barn’s doorway.
He stood just inside the doors, studying the clouds – they seemed to be calming down, spreading apart. A ray of sunlight shot down through a gap, and Seth plopped down on his ass and sighed heavily.
Why Jake? Why my son?
Through his tears, he spotted something in the distance, and stood up, wiping the mud from his clothes. The clouds above grouped together again, blocking the sun. They darkened, forming a brownish hue. The air seemed to age like an old photograph. Seth frowned as the object grew closer; and then there were more – six, so far.
He dared a peek outside the barn doors. The storm shelter was right against the barn. The two doors were closed, and a rusty padlock hanged from the latch he had installed only two years before (in fact, he had ordered Jake to do it). He felt around in his pockets for his keys and yanked them out. He examined them one by one, until finally finding the key he needed. It was old and unused; and yet it was the thing he needed more than anything right now.
Seth rummaged around the barn for a burlap bag, into which he put Jake’s legs. He then went to the open doors and as the wind blew back his hair, considered what he was about to do. He crossed himself, and bag in hand, dashed for the storm shelter.
On his way, he noticed that six had turned to ten.
“It’s God, I tell ya’” Mrs. Hagely spouted out. “He’s taking revenge on us for our sins, I tell ya!”
“Mommy?” Rachael said, latching onto Cindy’s leg.
“It’s ok, honey. I think it’s stopping.” She rubbed the little girl’s hair. “Mrs. Hagley, please! You’re scaring Rachael!”
The old woman looked at the little girl. “I’m sorry child. I’m just worried about my cat!”
“You’re worried about a cat!” Chaz Barker exclaimed. “What about my wife? She’s at home alone!”
“I’m sure Clara’s ok, Chaz,” Cindy said. “Maybe we should try the radio again.”
Something caught everyone’s attention.
“Is that a phone?” Cindy asked. Everyone looked around at each other, dumfounded. Then they all heard the ringing. “The office! Where’s Carl’s office?”
Cindy let go of Rachael and dashed down an isle toward the back of the store. The ringing drew her attention to the open doorway in one corner of the store. She ran into the small office and picked up the phone that was sitting on the old desk. The aged radio was still spewing out static from a small table next to a filing cabinet.
“Hello! Hello!” she nearly called out.
“Hello, who is this?”
“This is Cindy Tinney. Who’s this?” Little Rachael showed up in the doorway, followed by Joe and Chaz.
“This is Stu Webster, at the radio station. Where’s Carl?”
Cindy hesitated. The line sounded hollow, empty.
“Don’t tell me…”
“Yeah, he’s gone, Stu. We’re trapped in here. Everyone in town is.”
“Oh my God…” he said. “We’re trapped in the radio station. Bill got…Bill got killed. We saw some news on the TV…”
“News? What news?”
“They had a news conference on TV. You don’t have a TV there?”
“We’re in Junction Grocery, Stu! I don’t think there are any TV’s around!” Cindy blurted out.
“Who is it, Cindy?” Chaz asked.
Out of habit, she covered the mouthpiece with her hand. “It’s the radio station. They saw some news…hold on…”
“They were at the Whitehouse. They said this lightning thing was everywhere. I mean, all over the country!”
“It can’t be, Stu! The whole country?”
Joe’s mouth widened.
“That’s what they said. They said they don’t even know if it’s real or not. What’s going on there? Where is everyone?”
“We’re all in the store. Same thing – clouds, lightning. Are you trying to tell me they have no idea what’s causing this?”
“No, no. I don’t know. Clouds are covering everything. They said that the lightning is slowing down, though. The president has declared a state of emergency for the entire country! Everyone is supposed to stay inside until further notice. Bill…he’s gone. It’s just me and Connie.”
“Can you contact anyone outside of Junction?”
“Not sure, we’re gonna try. Like I said, they said the lightning may be stopping. I’ll call you back…”
“Wait, what about the…” The line went dead. She hung up the phone.
“Well, what’s happening?” Chaz asked.
Rachael ran over to Cindy, who picked her up in her arms. “They’ve declared a state of emergency over the whole country. The whole country!”
Joe shook his head. “What the hell is going on?”
“He said they had a press conference. It’s everywhere – they don’t know what’s causing it.”
“The White House has no idea?” Joe asked, frantically waving his arms.
“It’s not me, Joe!” Cindy blurted out. “They’re saying crazy shit on the news, alright?”
“Look, let’s all just calm down,” Chaz said.
Joe Jenkins looked at him incredulously. “Oh, this coming from the man who’s screaming about his wife!”
“You shut your mouth, right now, Joe, or I will-”
“Shut up! Both of you! We need to work together on this! Let’s go check outside.”
They stepped aside as Cindy passed, and then followed her up the isle toward the front of the store.
“I’m sorry, Chaz. I didn’t mean it. I guess I’m just scared, ya’ know? And I’ll just bet you are over Clara. Sorry.”
“It’s ok, Joe. We all are. Cindy’s right. Let’s just work together and we’ll be ok.”
“I’m sure Clara’s ok, Chaz.”
“Yeah, she is…thanks, friend.”
Cindy grew tired of carrying Rachael and set her down. “You are just getting to be a big girl,” she said, and pinched her cheek. They continued to the front of the store, where the wind seemed to be stiffening up, coursing through the large opening, blowing any loose papers off nearby counters, sending them aloft.
“Who was on the phone?” Mrs. Hagley demanded.
Cindy put her hands on her hips. “It was the radio station. It’s a nationwide emergency. Everyone is supposed to stay inside. The good news is, they think the lightning is stopping.”
“Well, that means I can go and feed my cat!” she said, matter-of-factly from her plastic throne.
“You just stay where you’re at for now, Mrs. Hagley,” Joe said. He went over to Illene and put an arm around her. “There’s a state of emergency going on, they know what’s going on, so we’ll all be ok.” He gave Ilene, who was visibly shaking, a strong hug, which seemed to calm her down. “Don’t you worry none, honey. Everything is ok.”
“Right,” Cindy said. “They said the lightning was letting up.” She went over to the window and contemplated the sky. “You hear? No thunder.” Chaz came over to the broken out window and looked upward – the white clouds had indeed calmed, and were merely hanging aloft. One thing Cindy had not mentioned, though, was that they had turned into a brownish color, and the very air had a strange color to it – similar to that of old photographs. A burst of wind nearly blew him back.
“Well, maybe that wind will clear those clouds out,” he said, looking doubtfully at Cindy. “In fact, it’s probably safe outside.”
“Chaz, if you have any ideas about…”
“No, I’m not going anywhere. Thanks for caring, Cindy,” he said, and when he turned to her, his eyes were moist and bloodshot.
“I’m sorry, Chaz.”
Chaz just turned away from the window and went over to one of the counters, where he leaned against it, alone, and emotional pain taking its toll.
Everyone grew silent, and Cindy directed Rachael to one of the plastic chairs. She had seen something familiar, very far off, yet familiar just the same; she did not want to mention it right away.
“So, did the radio station say how long we would have to stay here?” Mrs. Hagley asked. “I’m tired, and I want to go home!”
Cindy glanced back at the distant sky. She was startled to see Joe Jenkins standing next to her – he looked into her eyes knowingly.
“I think we just have to stay a little longer, Mrs. Hagely,” she said, studying the distant horizon inconspicuously.
“I’m gonna check outside, Connie.”
She grabbed his arm. “No, Stu, let’s just wait. You saw the news – they told everyone to stay inside.”
I know, but they did say the lightning was stopping.” He rubbed her arm. “It’ll be ok; I just want to look out the door.”
“I don’t know…”
“C’mon,” he said, grabbing her by the hand. He led her out of the broadcast office and down the hall to the exit. She reluctantly followed, silent and frightened. They reached the door, and he looked at her, smiling. “Let’s just have a look. Don’t worry.”
He pushed open the door and immediately a strong wind struck them, almost blowing them back. Stu help open the door and was taken aback by the change – the white, boiling clouds were gone. A dark cloud cover had replaced the puffy white, hanging ominously and darkening the landscape.
“You see? It’s all blowing away. I’ll bet all the lightning stopped.”
“Don’t go out there, Stu, please!”
“It’s ok, Connie,” he said, stepping outside. He stepped away toward the parking lot. “You see, I told-“
A blinding blink of an eye, and lightning touched him him, spreading him out and splattering Connie with blood. She screamed, but it caught in her throat as something descended from the clouds, and she struggled to shut the door against a wind that was more of a strong hand; it pushed, and nearly threw her onto the floor. She managed to force it shut, and lock the deadbolt. She sat on the floor and sobbed, wiping warm blood from her face.
Finally, she staggered toward the broadcast office – the TV showed nothing but snow. “Fuck!” she declared, and shoved it onto the floor. Its plastic case cracked, but it laid there on its side, the screen emitting nothing but the chaotic blue static. The howling wind outside intensified. She went to Bill’s office, and with silent resignation, she picked up the receiver and dialed what would be her very last number.
The wind hit Clara like a hammer, and blew her backwards onto the kitchen floor. Howling in her ears, hair blowing back, she gathered herself up and crawled into the living room, where she stood and went to the front door. Her heart hammered at what she saw outside; and then she was running hysterically, the skin on her face rippling.
She saw Chaz’s old truck parked next to the house.
“I just need to do a few more things to it, dear, and it’ll run great. You’ll see.”
“It’s downright ugly, Chaz. Let’s just junk it. It makes the property look ugly.”
“Ya’ can’t even see it from the road, Clara. It’ll be done soon.”
“That’s what you said two months ago, Chaz. If you’re gonna fix it, why not sell it, then?”
“Sell my truck? Are you crazy?”
She made it past the clothesline, the white wooden doors of the storm cellar just a few feet away from her. Clara fell onto her back and looked above her – she screamed as it dropped onto her and carried her away like a rag doll just before it tore into the house.
Seth reached the storm doors just as the wind furiously picked up and tried to blow him down. He dropped the burlap bag on the ground and forced the key into the rusty lock. At first, it did not want to turned, and he jiggled the key, taking care not to Rachaelk it. A cloud of dust blew into his face, stinging his skin and eyes. “Come on, damn you!” he called out, and the wind carried away his words.
He desperately worked the lock, and finally it opened (he more felt it click open than heard it, so intense the wind had become). He tossed it away, and yanked open the two doors – the mouth of the shelter yawned open, revealing the first few steps followed by darkness. Seth snatched up the bag and chanced another look up into the sky. Just above, the brownish clouds formed into a spinning vortex, and he could feel an almost magnetic lift on his body. There was no more time.
He tossed the bag into the opening and grabbed one of the two large wooden handles mounted on the inside of the doors. He barely managed to pull it toward him against the force of the wind, and hanging onto it tightly, grasped the other door and lifted it. It slammed against his ribs, and he cried out in pain.
“Son of a bitch!” He screamed at the oncoming threats. He moved down the wooden, dusty stairs, pulling the doors closed, sealing him in darkness. He felt around for a length of wood he knew was on the stairs, leaning against the earthen wall, and jammed it through the handles. The storm door rattled and shook, but held tight. Seth grimaced with pain and doubled over on the stairs. He felt around for the other length of wood, and dropped it into place in the other handles. He sat on the stairs holding his ribs.
The tempest threatening entry, he eventually felt his way down the stairs to the bottom, where the burlap bag lay on the earthen floor. He had not been in the cellar for quite a while, but memory served him well. One arm outstretched (the other he had wrapped around his ribs), he moved to his right until he felt one of the shelves he had installed along the wall, and found the kerosene lamp and a box of stick matches. At that moment, they felt like gifts from the Good Lord himself.
He raised the lantern’s glass cover and lit the wick. It caught quickly, and he lowered the cover and turned the small knob on the side until the light amplified, filling the room with a welcome glow. When he looked around at the contents, his thoughts wandered…
Seth and Jake were drenched in sweat from a relentless summer sun as they shoveled away dirt from the bottom of the hole.
“You two look like gophers!” Mary said from the top of the pit. “Would you like a drink to cool you down?” She was holding a tray with a pitcher of lemonade and several glasses.
Seth dropped his shovel, and put his hands on his hips. “Thank the Lord in heaven for you, woman! C’mon Jake!” He climbed the ladder, and crawled onto the top, where he stretched out – bones cracked, and he leaned back in relief as Jake crawled out of the hole.
Mary handed him a glass of heaven, and he downed half of it in a few gulps. “Now that hits the spot!” he declared, and Mary smiled. The sun was dizzying her, but she said nothing – Seth and Jake were slaving like dogs. She smiled and handed one to her son.
“You better enjoy this now, because I have a feeling your dad is going to have you right back down there,” she said, glancing at the pit.
“That’s right,” Seth said. “He can handle it – he’s a growing boy.”
“I think I’ve grown enough for the day, dad,” Jake said, wiping his brow.
Mary stood there in her jeans and tee shirt, already sweating in the relentless heat. She gazed at the men, and her eyesight went fuzzy, the figures a blur.
“Thanks, honey,” Seth said, and kissed her cheek.
“Not in front of the children, Seth! Besides, you need a shower!”
Seth laughed and took another swallow of the lemonade. He took a long look at his wife – he loved her so much. She had been a wonderful woman. She staggered a little to one side and almost dropped the tray.
“You ok, Mary?”
“Oh, I’m just fine. Just hot out.”
“Well, you better get inside, dear. It is kinda hot.” His glass was empty, save for a few ice cubes struggling against the heat. He set it on the tray, and motioned for Jake to do the same.
“Oh, I’m getting’ out of this heat, believe me. But I’ll be standin’ in front of a hot stove soon, makin’ my boys dinner. Come in soon, Seth.”
“Alright, just a little longer. C’mon, boy.”
Mary returned to the house and shortly thereafter, while Seth and Jake worked on the storm shelter, she suffered a stroke while sitting on the couch in front of the TV.
Mary was gone…
Seth looked around on the shelves he had built: A Coleman stove, three gallons of kerosene, canned food, dry food, water – and of course, a burlap bag with the Jake’s remains lying on the ground near the stairs.
The storm doors rattled intensely; and soon, fragments of his farm were bouncing off of them like bullets…
The phone rang in Carl’s office, and Cindy hurried back to answer it. Joe Jenkins remained in front of the broken out store window, watching the changing skies.
“Who is this?” a woman’s voice asked.
“This is Cindy. We’re in the grocery store. What’s going on?”
“This Connie, from the radio station,” the hysterical voice said. “Stu’s dead! The lightning got ‘em! But there’s something else…hold on.”
The line went quiet for a minute. A racket ensued, and then the woman returned to the phone. “Hide, anywhere! Find shelter, because…” Suddenly, chaos filled the line and it died.
A thought crossed Cindy’s mind, and she punched in a number on the phone and waited – an obviously stressed voice answered, and she breathed a sigh of relief to hear her brother on the other end.
“Pat, it’s me, Cindy. I – ”
“It’s about time you called me! I’ve been worried sick! I haven’t been able to get through to Junction.”
“I’m sorry, it’s been crazy. Are you alright?”
“So far, but the question is, are you alright? They’re saying all this crap started somewhere around there!”
“Cindy, you better get up here!” she heard Joe call out from the front of the store.
“Just a sec!” she called back. “Pat, we’re trapped in the grocery on Main Street. Everyone’s afraid to go outside. What are…”
The line was silent. “Pat! Pat! Shit!”
Cindy went to the front of the store and joined Joe at the window. He turned and looked her solemnly.
“I don’t suppose Carl has a basement or anything here,” she said with resignation.
“I don’t believe so,” Joe said. He turned and looked at Ilene. The woman was still silent. She had no words to describe her fear. He went and put his arms around his wife, and she sobbed into his shoulder.
“I want to see Clara, by God!” Chaz said.
“I’m sure she wants to see you, too, Chaz,” Cindy said, and a burst of wind blew her back a few steps. “Rachael, come here! Hurry!” The little girl ran to her mother, and glanced out the window. She saw the tornadoes touching down, twisting and twirling, one after another.
“Mommy!” she screamed, as pieces of the town started flying past the opening at the front of the store.
On the other side of Main Street, Manny was waving his arms wildly in the barber shop window.
Cindy held Rachael tightly and prayed.
Oh Robert, I wish you were here…
Cindy and Robert stood near one of their cornfields, watching the storm clouds gather across the sky. Rachael sat under the large oak near the front of the house, playing with her dolls. Distantly, jagged lightning briefly shot down from the clouds, and mild thunder ensued.
“Rachael, pick up your dolls and go inside!”
“I wanna be out here with you and daddy.”
“You do what I told you, unless you want your behind paddled, little girl!”
Rachael picked up her dolls and waddled toward the house as the first raindrops fell. On the porch, she turned and looked at Cindy.
“Inside, little girl!”
The rain pelted the ground as the two rushed to the farmhouse. On the porch, Cindy pushed a wet strand of hair away from her face. “It’s not gonna hurt our corn, is it?”
“No, Robert said. “This is a blessing. Just look at that beautiful rain – we need it!”
Cindy regarded her husband with worried eyes.
“Are you thinking about that again?” Robert said, putting his arms around her waist. “I told you, it’s going to be all right.” He saw Rachael watching through the door. “And just what are you looking at, little girl?” She giggled and ran off.
“Let’s go inside and make some lunch, shall we?” he said. Cindy turned away, and his smile faltered. He knew things weren’t going to be “alright” for him, but he just had not been able to tell Cindy everything the doctor had said, could not Rachaelk her heart. He would tell her eventually…
“I want daddy!” Rachael cried.
“Me too, honey,” Cindy said. “Me, too…”
Seth hunkered in a corner, Jakes remains next him, and listened to the bedlam outside the shelter. He had lost his wife, his son, and now his farm – he had lost emotion, as well. All was gone, and there was no more use for anger, sadness, and regrets. The slate had been wiped clean.
A hour passed, and all grew quiet. He picked up the lantern and went halfway up the stairs.
All was silent.
He slowly climbed the stairs to the doors, the pain in his ribs throbbing with every step. He pulled up the boards that were resting in the handles, the boards that had probably saved his life. Each one, he gently leaned on the stairs against the wall, and pushed open one of the doors. He saw a dark sky, but no tornadoes, no lightning – he gave the door a hard push, and it flipped open onto the outside ground. He left the other closed as he walked out of the shelter onto open ground and gazed around at what used to be his farm.