"The Girl Who Was Struck By Lightning" was previously published in Carrier Pigeon, with illustrations by Maude White.
The Girl Who Was Struck by Lightning
The tattooed man grabbed the little girl and threw her into the river, past the shadows of the willows that lined the banks.
The girl sank hard and fast, down to the muddy bottom. After she stopped moving and the world was silent once more, the little girl grabbed her knees and pulled them close to her chest. It was cool where she was, dark and twisted with reeds. Water bugs danced across the transparent ceiling above her. She closed her eyes. For a moment, she felt as if she should stay there, among the blind catfish and flat rocks. She wondered if the tattooed man might leave her there, climb back up the river bank and drive away in his noisy truck and forget that she even existed, like a skipped stone vanished beneath a circle of ripples.
Then the little girl felt her heart begin to tighten, as if something very heavy was on top of her. She was suddenly afraid. The little girl pushed off from the river bottom and kicked her thin legs toward the surface, breaking through into the close July morning and sucking air into her chest as fast as it would come.
The tattooed man stood on the river bank, smoking a cigarette, watching her.
A cold arm reached up from the muddy river bottom then; it grabbed the little girl’s foot and tried to pull her down deep again. She kicked her legs away and moved her arms and splashed across the river to where the man stood. Her feet found solid ground and she stumbled out of the water, shivering and crying and wondering what the man would do to her next.
Now you know how to swim, the man said, and took another drag on his cigarette. That’s more than your momma ever done for you.
Beth woke just after six in the morning and knew right away that something was different.
Her chest ached with a dull pressure and her throat felt sore, as if she had slept all night in a cold draft. She smelled wet pine from the lumber yard across the street, just beyond the train tracks.
She heard Jerry, her husband, working at his rickety typewriter down the short, sloping hallway in the kitchen. Jerry got up at 5 o’clock every morning to work on his novel. He usually closed the door so the noise would not bother Beth while she slept.
Beth looked up at the ceiling, the cobwebs barely visible in the thin light streaming through the drapes. She thought of her mother, buried beneath mountains of old newspapers and sewing patterns, in the dim house on the ridge. Alone in her yellow armchair, barely able to breathe from the cigarettes and mildew.
Beth turned on the lamp on the night stand and then went to her dresser and pulled out her notebook, hidden underneath her socks and underwear.
The notebook was green and spiral bound. Beth had bought it on sale at the Price Slasher, along with a thick black pen with refillable ink. She took the items and turned on the color TV on the crooked bookshelf and sat at the foot of the bed, the volume turned down low.
The program was just beginning. It came on every weekday, before the morning news. Beth listened to the introduction as she turned through the pages of the spiral bound notebook, filled with her neat black cursive, until she reached the first empty page.
APRIL 27TH, she wrote in block letters. EGYPT AND THE PYRAMIDS.
Beth listened quietly as the hostess, a pert woman with sun-bleached hair and a perfect smile, rode across the desert on a camel. The woman was adventurous and bold. She had gone scuba diving at The Great Barrier Reef and had eaten beet pudding in the former Soviet Union. She had even wrestled a tiger in the southern tip of Malaysia.
The Bedouin people wear burnooses, Beth wrote carefully, repeating the words of the hostess. They enjoy roasting sheep on spits, and drink wine from silver cups.
Jerry sometimes took her to parties, given by his intellectual friends at the community college, and Beth would find herself pressed against a wall in a corner, listening to people talk knowledgeably about politics, or music, or the world. Jerry would smile at her and ask, Well, what do you think about that?
Her mind would go blank, as if someone had turned it to a channel that was only soft static, white noise. Yes, I think so, too, she would say. You can’t be more right than that, can you?
Beth studied the notebook every day, before breakfast, and sometimes before she went to bed at night. Part of her wished that Jerry would discover it, so that she could explain how she was making an effort. She wondered if he would open up to her about his writing, then, about the
stories and words that swirled around in his head and made the lines on his soft face grow deeper.
The other part of her, the bigger part, was growing more and more convinced that it was pointless. Beth had never ridden a subway before, or seen a building that was more than five stories tall. She had spent her whole life in town, among the thick stands of pine trees and wide dirt roads, with no lines down the middle to guide her. There was no reason to think that might change.
She sat there at the foot of the bed, the muted light of sunrise pooling on the warped hardwood floor beside her. Beth realized then why she had woken with a dull pressure on her chest, why this morning felt so different. She had dreamed of the day when her father taught her to swim.
The restaurant was filled with the dinner crowd. There were families with small children who had spotted the neon sign from the highway, on their way up to the mountains or down to the Gulf. There were regulars, too: elderly men with tired eyes and stooped shoulders who pulled up in their white sedans and sat in the same booth every night. There were the burly guys who drove the big rigs, and the shy girl who worked at the mini mart across the street. They were all there, sitting at wide wooden tables with checkered plastic tablecloths, eating chicken fried steak and slices of warmed pecan pie.
Beth had been on since ten that morning, and her shift was nearly over. She had worked at the restaurant since high school, almost four years. She was a hostess, which meant that she greeted the patrons and refilled their coffee cups when they needed it. She paper clipped the specials to the menus every day. She even handled difficult situations, like the time a drunk gentleman had refused to pay for his meal and smashed the rotating Tower of Pies to pieces with his bare hands. There were still shards of glass embedded in the carpet.
Beth planned to have a bite to eat in the back room after her shift and then catch the bus back across town to her apartment. Jerry had class at the community college on Tuesday nights, and got home late. The weatherman on Channel 5 was calling for rain that night, but Jerry had reminded her to take her umbrella. He was good at reminding her about the little things.
There was a rumble of thunder. Beth glanced out the window at the parking lot, and the darkening sky behind it. A station wagon sputtered past on the road, a metal canoe mounted to its roof on a rack. She caught a glimpse of a dog, perhaps a greyhound, in the back seat.
“Hey, girl,” Lindsey said. She walked through the main door and slipped off her wind breaker. Lindsey was a senior at the high school and worked the dinner shift as a waitress, part time. Her hair was tied up in a ponytail and her eyeliner was heavy and dark. “Who’re those two hotties by the window?” she asked, and cracked her chewing gum. “I seen them when I was walking up just now.”
Beth followed her glance to a booth by the front window. Two young men, her age or perhaps a few years older, sat looking over a map. They were drinking hot coffee, and the blond one had eaten half a slice of cinnamon apple pie. It sat on a plate, pushed to one side of the table in front of him.
“I’m not sure,” Beth said. The men were sunburned and had prickly brown beards. They wore thin t-shirts with strange logos and long shorts with lots of pockets. Beth wondered if they were surfers from California. She didn’t remember seating them.
The blond one looked up just then. He caught Beth’s eye as she stood there behind the hostess stand. His eyes were bright blue. He looked like he had spent all day in the sun.
“Look at that,” Lindsey said, and cracked her gum again. “Jerry better watch out. He’s got some real competition.”
Beth looked away, and blushed. She felt a buzzing in her stomach. It spread through her arms and fingers. “Yeah, right,” she said. Beth felt uncomfortable when other people talked about Jerry. He was the only man that she had ever been with, but she had never admitted that to Lindsey, or anyone else.
An elderly couple came in. The woman had spectacles that hung from a silver chain. Her husband wore suspenders and a belt with an enormous brass buckle in the shape of a bull. They smiled at Beth as they hung up their coats near the door.
“Good evening, Mrs. Sims,” Beth said, and smiled. It wasn’t quite six, so she was still on duty. “Hello, Mr. Sims. Smoking or non-smoking tonight?” She liked to be polite, even when she knew the patrons who came in the restaurant.
The elderly couple smiled at her and made small talk as Beth led them to a table by the window. Mr. Sims coughed as he sat down. Beth told them about the specials for that evening. She could feel the blond young man watching her from his booth nearby.
“How is your mother, dear?” Mrs. Sims asked.
Beth pretended she didn’t hear. “You folks have a nice meal,” she said.
Raindrops spattered the window. Thunder rumbled from the pine woods on the other side of the road. The blond young man with the sunburned face caught Beth’s eye again as she made her way back to the hostess stand.
“Excuse me, miss,” he said. He had an accent, a lilt to his voice, that made Beth think of grape vines lying under the hot sun. As she looked into his eyes, her mind wandered to thoughts of elderly men riding bicycles down wide French country roads, quiet ponds with water lilies.
“Yes?” she said, noticing his bright blue eyes and uneven teeth, the way his thin t-shirt spanned his broad shoulders. There was a road map of the United States spread out on the table in front of them. The young man with short black hair and plastic sunglasses was tracing a line through Arkansas with a red magic marker. He had a scar across the bridge of his nose. “Yes, can I help you?” she asked, expectantly.
“Café,” the blond young man said, and pointed to his cup. “Merci.” He turned back to the map. His words hung there a moment, then vanished into the air, as if he spoken to no one at all.
The back room was down a dim hallway, near the kitchen. It had stiff plastic tables and chairs and a microwave that no one ever cleaned. Off to the side sat a Frigidaire that rattled and shook like a pickup truck on a gravel road.
Beth sat under the harsh florescent lights, listening to the rain strike the roof above. Thunder rumbled every few minutes, and at one point the lights flickered a bit, but did not go out. She was not feeling hungry, so she had ordered a garden salad and filled her cup with diet soda from the fountain.
One of the dishwashers sat in the room with her. He was an emaciated man with a stringy ponytail and a welt on his neck. He was watching TV and smoking a cigarette.
Beth picked up a newspaper that someone had left on one of the tables. There was the real estate section, and part of the front page, folded in half. Beth took a bite of her salad and scanned the news. She read the first few paragraphs of each article, but soon stopped reading.
Beth wanted to go back into the restaurant and introduce herself to the sunburned French men, but she had no idea what she would say, or if they would even find her attractive. She tried to remember facts about France from her notebook, but could only think of a store window filled with loaves of fresh bread.
Thunder shook the walls. It sounded like someone was punching a hole in the sky above them. The dishwasher crushed out his cigarette and looked at her. “Close one,” he said. He got up and left the room.
Beth thought of her mother then, of the rain leaking down her mildewed walls, dark except for the pale light of the television, in the house high on the ridge. She wondered if her mother could even hear the thunder.
Lindsey came into the back room then. It was almost seven, and she was supposed to be working. She was pale, and her hands were shaking.
“What is it?” Beth asked.
Lindsey reached into her purse for a bottle of blue pills. She drew a glass of water from the sink and took two of them. “Your boyfriend,” she said. She glared at Beth with sharp green eyes. “Him and his buddy split without paying. Burt’s gonna kill me.”
Beth looked down at her half-eaten salad. She though of the two young men with their prickly brown beards and thin t-shirts again. This time, though, they were speeding down the highway through the pine trees and the rain, making their escape.
The parking lot was flooded by the time she was ready to leave. Beth put her shoes and socks in her purse and opened her umbrella. She had a hooded sweatshirt, but knew it wouldn’t do much good against the storm.
She set off along the sidewalk that ran along the road. The rain fell in thick sheets that soaked her slacks and her hair. Cars drove past, their headlights cutting jagged paths through the storm.
The bus stop was a few blocks down the road, on the opposite side of the street. There was a metal overhang there, and a bench that would perhaps be dry. She would catch the bus and then be back to her apartment in time to greet Jerry after his class.
Beth walked quickly down the sidewalk, the rain cold against her bare feet, the noise of the restaurant far behind her. She passed the Dairy Queen, then the gas station, already dark for the night. Then she crossed the street at the light, unfamiliar faces watching her from behind blurred car windows, windshield wiper blades beating time against the glass. Thunder shook the air as she left the crosswalk and started down the muddy path that bounded the pine forest, the bus stop up ahead.
Then she stopped. Beth stopped and looked through the wavering branches of the pine trees, into the wet darkness between them, and saw the tattooed man staring back at her.
Her breath caught in her throat. “Hello,” she whispered.
The tattooed man spread his arms open and smiled at her.
Beth stood there a moment. She stood there at the edge of the wet darkness, and then took a step.
There was a clap of thunder. Beth looked up in the sky and saw a bolt of white light hurtling toward her. She felt her body rise up from the ground as the white streak split her umbrella and traveled through her. It exited her body and disappeared into the ground. She fell to the wet pine needles and the mud and the rain.
Beth lay there, the rain soaking her face, her heart racing. She smelled smoke and burnt wood. She wondered if she were dead. She thought about Jerry, sitting at the kitchen table in their second-floor apartment across the street from the lumber yard, alone.
Then, sounds began to come to her. She heard the traffic on the road nearby, and the rustling of the branches around her. After a moment, Beth got to her feet. She stood under a street lamp in the rain and looked at her fingers. They were numb and red, but not painful. Her feet seemed fine, as well. She could walk.
Beth looked deep into the pine forest. She looked deep into the wet darkness and did not see her father.
The storm lasted all night, the thunder and lightning and the wind. After midnight, Beth left Jerry in their bed and walked down the hallway to their tiny kitchen. She fixed herself a cup of tea and sat there at the kitchen table, her bare feet on the cold linoleum, and heard the thunder crashing. She saw her husband’s typewriter sitting on the table, his favorite flannel shirt with the torn pocket on the back of a chair. She saw the bright blue eyes of the young man in the restaurant. She heard Mr. Sims’ cough.
The lightning lit the darkness.
Beth got up from her chair and went back in her bedroom. She moved to her dresser and slid open her drawer that held her underwear and socks.
The green notebook was still there. She could feel it.
Beth took the notebook back to the kitchen. She opened a heavy window that led to a short sloping roof. A sharp wind blew into the room. It lifted her nightshirt and sent a fine mist against her legs.
The lumber yard was dark across the street. She smelled the wet pine again, and heard the far off whistle of a train.
Beth ripped out the first page of the notebook. She held the thin piece of paper by its frayed edges and then let the wind carry it out the window, into the night. It fluttered away like a ghostly bat.
Beth tore out the second page of the notebook. She let the wind carry it. She heard Jerry calling her name, but did not want to stop.