At the first rumble of thunder, Mama stood up immediately from the chair on the porch where she’d been shucking corn over a garbage can, and put the pot on her seat. She opened the screen door, and stuck her head inside to call up the stairs to my brother who she’d sent to bathe a few minutes earlier when he’d come back from the river looking like he’d been trying to catch the fish with his hands instead of his rod.
“Johnny!” she yelled. “Get out of the tub. It’s lightning.”
“Ah, Ma,” he called back down. “I just got in.”
There was a sudden flash so bright it whited out vision. Thunder clapped over our heads with a sound so violent and sharp that it suggested the sky had been cracked apart like a nut in a giant’s fist. We jumped, startled.
“Mother of God!” my mother swore. Her voice went up a notch as she yelled back into the house, “John Arthur Devry, you do what you’re told!”
She let the screen door close. As was her wont, her hand moved to her opposite wrist and began taking her pulse as she turned to peer into the rainless sky. Her father had died young of a massive coronary and all her life she’d been afraid she, too, was going to die suddenly. She’d never gotten over this rumination, and while she took her pulse often, I got the feeling she did it without thinking much about it.
The sky was flat white, so devoid of color and texture that it was a wonder we could see any flash at all against it. But when the next bolt came, it was as if someone had pulled the chain of a light bulb and the filaments had exploded against the hot glass. The clap was immediate, and was followed by a high-pitched whistling, as if the air was rushing to get out of the way. There was a second flash and clap of thunder that followed hard on. As a thin, delicate rain started, the sound of the thunder trailed away like a jar of marbles being poured out on concrete. Somewhere nearby, we heard a drawn-out, painful cracking, and I knew that we’d find a tree split and blackened when we next ventured into the woods nearby.
“Whoo-hoo,” Johnny said. He was leaning against the doorframe with a towel around his waist, his wet hair plastered to his forehead. He looked vaguely annoyed. Johnny complained mightily when sent to take a bath, but once he was in, he settled for a good long soak, just like Papa did. He seemed to think that bathtubs were where menfolk did all their deepest thinking about the world.
“Look, Mama,” I said, holding my arm out so she could see the little hairs standing up.
She took hold of my wrist – I swear she was checking my pulse – and rubbed a hand up and down my forearm. “It’s just static, honey,” she told me. “It’s because the electricity in the lightning is so powerful that it crawls all over things if you’re close to it.” Seeing my worried expression, she reassured me. “You’re okay, baby. You’re under shelter, and that’s why we get out of the bathtub when it’s raining, ‘cause lightning loves the water and will find it.”
“And tall things?” I asked her, repeating what I’d learned at school.
“And tall things,” she nodded.
“Yeah, so you’ll never have to worry, squirt,” Johnny said.
I gave him a hateful look. “Says you.”
“Quit it,” Mama said to us absently, and looked up at the sky again.
The high white ceiling of cloud was starting to fracture and the blue sky between appeared to hold the pieces together. As the rain took on more weight, slanted rays of sunshine dropped from between the clouds.
“See that?” Mama said. “The devil is beating his wife.”
Papa appeared from around the corner of the porch, wiping his hands on a small hand towel. He tucked his face against the inside of his shirt sleeve to dab away a few drops of rain that had hit him as he came from his office to the house porch. Though his vest was unbuttoned and sleeves rolled up, he still managed to look neat, in part because he used so much pomade that his hair couldn’t move an inch, but also because he never appeared outside his bedroom without having shaved.
“Heard the strike out in the woods. Everyone alright?” he asked. He looked unfazed by the noise that had startled us all, but he was a hard man to rile. His position as the town physician demanded a certain professional demeanor and this calm regard had permeated most aspect of his personal life, as well.
“What are you doing out in this?” Mama said, disapprovingly. “Yes, we’re fine.”
She offered him the dish towel she had over her shoulder, but he raised the towel in his own hand in answer. Crossing the porch, he kissed her on the cheek, then put an arm around her shoulders so they could stand looking out at the front yard.
“Devil is beating his wife,” Papa observed.
“I was just telling the boys,” Mama sighed and let her head fall against Papa’s shoulder. “Thunder liked to give me a heart attack,” she told him.
My father smiled a little at this oft-repeated truism, and hugged her against his side. I was a mostly quiet child and, as usual, I observed my parents carefully now. Though my mother was a few inches taller than my father, his low-key confidence and the way she leaned into him somehow made him seem taller than she was. No one ever thought they were anything but a good match for each other, the dark-haired, neat country doctor and his hard-working, slightly overwrought wife.
Papa looked over his shoulder at my brother in the door. “You catch anything before the storm brought you in, Johnny-boy?”
“Yessir,” Johnny said. “Caught a catfish.”
“You put it in the sink?”
“Yessir and cleaned it, too.” I saw Mama smile at the pride in Johnny’s voice.
“Good man,” Papa said.
You could see Johnny beam at Papa’s compliment. My brother’s usual insouciance faded into a state of attention around our father. He stood up straighter, and spoke more certainly. My father regarded my brother’s assured declamations with amusement. My mother, on the other hand, was less entertained by what looked to her like arrogance and sometimes willful ignorance, and she often delivered a verbal swat meant to bring Johnny’s burgeoning ego back down to earth. To me, as the younger brother who was often the object of this puffed-up certainty, his know-it-all-ness was ridiculous and infuriating, but I nonetheless recognized, because I felt the same need, that he was only trying to be a person my father would respect.
Papa reached over and ruffled my hair. “Monkey-doodle,” he greeted me.
“Hi, Daddy,” I said.
“Lightning scare you?” he asked.
I nodded. “A little.” I never lied to my father. He was the sort of man who believed that a lie was a failing much worse than whatever else we might confess to. A person who tried and failed had nothing to be ashamed of in his estimation. A person who lied had a character deficiency that stemmed from a cracked foundation deep inside himself. My father never trusted someone who couldn’t admit he was wrong.
Whether his beliefs had developed out of his medical practice, I didn’t know, but I did know that he was a man who quietly differentiated between surfaces and depths. Once, when we’d complained about having to wait so long for him to finish with one of his patients, he’d said, “Boys, you must realize illness isn’t always distinguishable from loneliness. For lots of people, I can make them feel better just by spending time listening to them.” I never forgot him saying that, and it served me well later when I became of a doctor of a different sort.
He nodded now solemnly at my admission, then withdrew his arm from around my mother’s shoulders and stepped forward to the edge of the porch. He began to roll his left sleeve down as he looked at the sky. “Well, looks like it’s clearing up,” he said. He gave me a reassuring smile.
There was a wild honking from down the road. A car was barreling toward us, and its driver was beating frantically at the horn. I saw my mother’s hand flutter to her neck anxiously.
“Johnny, get my bag for me, will you?” Papa said over his shoulder.
The screen door was clapping shut behind Johnny before my father even finished the command. My brother disappeared in a flash around the corner of the porch and we shortly heard him open the door to the separate entrance of my father’s office around the back of the house.
The Buick, still bleating its alarm, veered hard into our yard, and my father moved rapidly down the porch stairs to meet it, the sides of his vest flapping back like spreading wings.
Ed Brazell was calling out the open window before the car was even fully stopped.
“Franklin was struck by lightning!” Ed called. “Come quick! They’ve got him at Nita’s!”
“Johnny!” my father shouted and before we heard the screen door bang behind him, my brother tore around the corner toward us holding my father’s medical kit under his arm and clutching his towel around his waist with the other. Still running, he let go of his towel and tossed the bag to Papa as if he was executing were a lateral football play. He didn’t slow until he had relinquished possession of the bag. When he did, he fumbled at the unraveling knot at his waist, catching it just as the towel was separating.
Papa snatched the bag from the air and slid into the back seat of the LeSabre through the door that Ed had reached back to open for him when the car had come to a stop. Papa was pulling the door shut behind him even as Ed hit the gas, turned the steering wheel all the way to the right, and tore out of the front yard. The car rolled through one of the flowerbeds on the way out to the road again. The squealing of the tires as they spun against the asphalt masked a different sound at first, but as the car pulled away, we made out another voice raised in alarm.
“Dr. Devry! Come quick!”
A small black boy burst from the woods across the road, yelling. His thin bare arms swung through the air like pistons as he ran, and he threw himself into our yard with his chin raised as if he were throwing himself across a finish line. He was to our porch before the Buick was a hundred yards down the road.
“Dr. Devry!” he shouted at the house.
I recognized the boy. His name was Micah. His mother worked for one of the families in town. He had a load of brothers and sisters. The boys, in particular, all looked similar, which was how his younger brother, Hey Boy, had gotten his nickname.
“Get the doctor! Get the doctor!” Micah yelled at us, trying to catch his breath. “It’s Hey Boy….” He bent at the waist, one hand against the porch to hold himself up. He was shirtless and his shorts were damp through. When he raised his face to speak, his black skin shone, though it was hard to know whether it was from the rain or perspiration. He opened his mouth to say something but other screams of alarm came from the woods after him.
“Help! Help us!”
Mr. Gartner, who owned the grocery store, stumbled onto the road carrying Hey Boy in his arms. The boy was limp, his head fallen back, mouth open, and arms hanging perpendicular to the road. His body bounced in Mr. Gartner’s arms as the grocer ran awkwardly across the road toward us. Crying hysterically, Hey Boy and Micah’s sister, Janelle, ran alongside him, one hand on her brother’s bouncing calf.
“Get your husband!” Mr. Gartner screamed at my mother as he ran for the porch.
Suddenly, my body seemed a separate thing from my mind and it was a thing that was taking off across the yard after the Buick. “Daddy!” I screamed, waving my arms wildly as I chased after the car. “Daddy! Stop!”
I could feel the tissue in the back of my throat straining and tearing as I screamed and ran. I knew that I would not be able to speak normally in the coming days. But the car was moving away at such a speed, I saw I could never catch it, and wasn’t even sure if my voice would carry to it. I stood jumping up and down in the road, screaming for my father to come back. For a moment, I thought I saw his tense face look back through the rear window, then it was gone again as the car sped away. I turned and ran back toward the porch where a chaotic scene was taking place.
“He’s gone,” I told my mother.
“Lay him here! Here!” my mother said to Mr. Gartner, pointing to the porch floor. “Oh, Lord!”
I saw that Johnny had grabbed hold of Hey Boy’s legs and was trying to help the older man carry the unconscious boy. Mr. Gartner’s face was red with exertion and he was puffing hard, trying not to lose his grip on the limp child in his arms. As he and Johnny lifted Hey Boy’s inert body up onto the porch, I saw Johnny’s towel come loose and slip off his pale hips.
Something clanked on the wooden porch with a metallic sound, and I remember thinking that it was odd that a towel should make a sound like that when it hit the ground. Then there was the truly terrifying sound of Hey Boy’s heels hitting the boards. It was the sound of a body part unmitigated by conscious control striking the world. That, more than anything, told me that the life had left Hey Boy’s body.
“The lightning…they were walking up on the levee,” panted Mr. Gartner. I saw that he was pushing at Hey Boy’s shoulder, as though he might be able to wake him from some sleep.
But Hey Boy wasn’t moving. From what I could see, he wasn’t even breathing. He lay, jaw slack, mouth opened. And all the while, Janelle in her little orange halter-top and jean shorts hung onto her brother Micah and screamed Hey Boy’s name, weeping and crying. Micah’s eyes were wild like a horse in a fire.
“Run!” my mother directed, not so much to a particular one of us as to anyone who would take up the task. “The doctor’s gone to Nita Mason’s! Run for him! Run!”
I turned to go, but Micah had already thrown off his sister’s grasping hands and was running toward town and help. He became a small dark blur against the otherwise idyllic backdrop. The spurt of dark loam that the Buick had kicked up onto the grass behind it when it tore through the flowerbed looked comically for a moment like a motion line indicating where Micah had just been and was going.
Mama sank to her knees next to Hey Boy and put her ear against his mouth, listening. Her long-practiced fingers sought out his thin wrist and felt for his heartbeat. She closed her eyes and concentrated, trying to find any sign of life.
Mr. Gartner had stepped back from the porch, and in order to see, I stepped around him toward Hey Boy’s bare feet. There was something strange about his feet and for a moment I couldn’t figure what it was. Then I realized to my horror that the bottoms of Hey Boy’s feet were the same color as the top. No, not the same. The lightning had flashed through the boy’s body and left everything unmarked, except for his feet where the electricity had come out again and gone into the earth, leaving behind the charred, blackened flesh before me. I could not take my eyes off the soles of his seared feet.
My mother had taken charge when the boy had been set down, but there was only so much she could do, a deficiency she felt keenly as was clear to see when she opened her stricken eyes and sat back on her feet. Janelle wailed, and Mr. Gartner stood with his hands on his knees, shaking his head and mumbling the Lord’s prayer.
“Mama, move!” Johnny, naked as the day he was born, pushed our mother to the side and kneeled next to Hey Boy’s head. He clamped Hey Boy’s jaw shut and put a hand over his mouth. He took a huge breath, leaned over and put his mouth over the black boy’s nose. We heard him exhale hard, then he raised his head, took another breath and repeated the procedure.
For a moment, no one moved, stunned as we all were at the sight of a white boy with his mouth pressed against Hey Boy’s black face. Even Janelle stopped her wailing, shocked. Johnny paid no attention, focused instead on breathing into Hey Boy’s nose, once, twice, three times.
Mama lay her hand on Hey Boy’s ribs with a gasp. I stepped closer to see what she was looking at: his chest expanding when Johnny blew hard into his lungs. Johnny raised his head and gasped for air, and then blew hard into Hey Boy’s nose over and over. We watched, mesmerized, as my brother made Hey Boy breathe. After awhile, I realized I was breathing along with Johnny’s exertions. I held one of Hey Boy’s feet in my right hand, waiting, hoping.
After some minutes, Mama put her ear to Hey Boy’s chest again and listened. Johnny sat back on his heels, waiting. The naked white skin of Johnny’s chest was heaving, the opposite in every way from Hey Boy’s still, dark-skinned chest. Nothing I’ve ever seen before or since has ever been stiller than that boy’s body. Nothing was ever more animated than my brother’s. I let go of Hey Boy’s foot.
Later, they came for Hey Boy, taking his inert body in the blanket Mama had laid over him and carrying him to the car that would bring him to his mother’s house. Johnny and I sat on the porch, our feet hanging over the edge, watching. I sat close to him, our shoulders and legs almost touching, acutely aware of our breathing, how easy it was, how natural. Johnny had his towel wrapped around his waist once more.
In his hand, Johnny held the metal object we had heard fall from Hey Boy’s pocket when they’d laid him on the porch. He opened his palm to show me. The electricity had welded the coins in Hey Boy’s pocket together into an alien-looking lump with sharp fans of coin sticking out of it. I took it from him and examined it.
“How did you know what to do?” I asked.
Johnny let his heels bang lightly against the house. “Papa read it to me from one of his journals a few months ago. It’s new. They call it rescue breathing.” He paused as the adults arranged Hey Boy’s body in the back seat of the car. “I guess it doesn’t work,” Johnny said.
Papa shut the car door and shook hands with Mr. Gartner. The two of them, and Ed Brazell who had driven my father home from town, stood consulting. Barely visible in the front seat was Micah, who had also ridden back with Papa and Ed, and who was now grieving silently.
“I guess,” I replied.
As the car pulled onto the road and began the slow drive back to town, Papa picked up his doctor’s bag from the ground and stood watching solemnly. He turned to walk back toward us, his head lowered in thought. My mother waited for him at the foot of the steps, her hands anxiously kneading the material of her dress. When he drew near to her, she reached out and took the bag from him. I saw their fingers touch in silent communication.
I watched it all silently, knowing that, soon, Johnny and I would go into the woods behind the house to find the tree that had been struck earlier in the afternoon. For now, though, we sat quietly breathing as I turned the fused coins over and over in my hands.
Elizabeth Rosen is a short story writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Litro, Ascent, Pithead Chapel, Sequestrum, The Macguffin, Xavier Review, Best Short Stories of the Saturday Evening Post, and others. Her story “Tracks” was the 2021 first prize winner of the Writer’s Digest Annual Competition in the mainstream/literary category. She is a former writer for Nickelodeon TV and an academic specializing in apocalyptic story-telling.