It’s lightning, only I can’t tell if the lightning is in front of my eyes or behind. Nighttime and the only way I can know from my bed is the skylight, but the flash comes and goes as fast as my eyes blink, so I can’t tell.
I stare at the skylight and try to keep my eyes open.
When I finally blink, bang, there it is.
Which it can’t be, because there’s no lightning here at this time of year or any time of year. No storms blow through. It’s dry here always.
Until this year. This night.
And I’m thinking, It’s more than weather. I’m spooked.
I go to the window, open the slats to peek. There’s nothing in the street, not even a cat and then, there it is. Heat lightning we called it as children back where I grew up in another wetter part of the world. Smeared sky-wide.
This is in front of my eyes, I think. This is real.
I slip on my rubber boots, put a coat over my nightgown and walk out on the front steps. Things are moving fast near my feet. Crickets. Like a world of them has congregated at my door and waited for me to open it.
Now they scatter. They make no sound. Even the bullfrog is quiet.
I walk out into the driveway. A streetlight—the ugly one that kid rammed drunk with his car, sheering off the boot, leaving the pole bare, the lamp askew—it’s black against the bright sky, then gone altogether.
Because it’s off.
All of the streetlights are off.
Should I knock? After all this time, I don’t know a single person living around me. Maybe I could knock and ask, Is everything all right?
But I don’t. When you skip the neighbor thing in the daylight, you don’t get to knock on doors at night.
I start up the street.
No dogs. Where’s the barking?
I have a shadow, not much of one, but it’s darker in my shape on the pavement in front of me, so I step into myself. I hear my mother chiding me: Make a racket as you go. Tell them you’re here.
So I’m scraping my rubber soles across the rough pavement with each step when there’s a crack and I turn around—I’m at the intersection of the subdivision looking back—and I see the eucalyptus going before the lightning hits it even though that can’t be true. It all looks like it’s running backwards, the tree rising from the roof into the sky, its roots sinking, re-attaching.
People here hate eucalyptus. The trees grow shallow. But I love them. I love their shedding. I love that they grow big fast. The one behind my house has been its best friend. The only thing house-big nearby. One house, one tree, neither one belonging, both stuck in a field that’s wild. Grass comes up and dies. Deer visit but never graze.
I can tell from here it went down through the skylight.
There goes the bed.
For days now, I haven’t been able to sleep. I thought it was because I couldn’t. Turns out, it wasn’t. Turns out, it was a message with no message coming through, just the absence of sleep which got me out of bed and far enough away to see the tree fall into the imprint of me still warm in my pillow.
I’m in the field now. The tree lies canted. I skirt the root ball.
Then sound falling from the sky, rain, so I lie down. The brown grass smells awful. The field rises away from me and I think, Maybe I’ll be all right.
A wave of grasshoppers lift toward the sky bleached in the flash. Moths follow, shooting upward from the peeling trunk. I see them circle, then dive toward the horizon like birds, like bats, like a school of fish on the run.
They’re flying away, I realize. They’re doing something they’ve been programmed to do: get out.
The water from the sky smells as bad as the grass. It cuts in sheets as if strewn from a bucket.
I want my mother. I want her to tell me what to do.
If it’s the world ending, I think, I should pray.
I never saw my mother pray. I never saw her cry. I saw her hesitate. The snake in the front hall—I saw her hesitate before going to where the hoe was to bring it back in, to swing it down just behind that snake’s head before it could snake itself into a wall or a stair or the basement and trouble us for eternity. She took a moment for the hoe. For prayer, not so much.
That means when she died, she probably went nowhere. No heaven. No nothing. Actual death after death. Her punishment for not believing.
Well, I don’t believe either, but I’m praying now, because there is nobody but me here with the sky splitting apart in a part of the world where that doesn’t happen.
I can’t see for the downpour. I shield my eyes. No one’s lights are on.
Because they’re dead already, I think. Or dying.
And then I’m up, sopped, spitting. The rain tastes like bug spray, the way it tastes when you smell it.
Five deer jump out of the grass ahead of me. They’re running in the same direction I am. That’s a good sign. But then a doe, the biggest of them, goes for the fence and doesn’t clear it. I’ve never seen this before. Maybe the lighting coming-going confused her. She hooks her two front legs on the chicken wire and goes down. I’m thinking her legs might be broken, but I don’t stop. The other deer either. They shy sharp left and keep going.
We’re doing the circumference.
I know the fence breaks on the far side at Justis Lane, but I can’t see the gap. The barn at the top of the lane that always burns a work light over the hayloft, it’s dark.
The deer are long gone when I find the opening, sense it, staggering now in deepening mud, righting myself, looking up as I reach for the fence post.
And there before me is a devil.
Two legs. Rack like a buck or some such, like black lightning coming out where its head should be. Two legs and then things going into the sky, a whole lot taller than I am even on the lower ground. Nothing but a dark shape against a dark sky, but I can tell this thing is looking at me.
Goddamn you, where is the Winchester?
I can hear my mother howling from whatever locked-up solitary of death they’ve stuck her in, but she’s howling at me, Where’s the rifle?
She’s right. She’s always right.
Raw wood, the fence post, skins my right palm. If only I could pull it out, swing it at those legs, the hooves, but I can’t. It’s set fast.
I feel something in my other hand coming up from the ground now. What is it? A stick? It doesn’t matter.
Man, do I let it fly.
The thing doesn’t move. Whatever I threw is gone.
And I’m back on my ass now and then flipped and crawl-running up toward the crown of the field thinking, If you’re going to take me, let it be straight into death, into my mother’s arms.
“Mother!” I’m calling as she catches me on the crest, rising as I do, appearing head to waist until she’s there, part pouring rain, part woman. I run into her, wet and slipping, and she’s yelling, I’ve got you.
She’s got me.
And—she’s got the rifle.
Listen to the audio version of this story at Amanda McTigue’s website: http://amandamctigue.com/big-fast/