(Editorial note: The following is a short story called "Lightning Rod." Moreso than other stories I've written here, I'd like to encourage you to leave comments about the story, feeling free to go into as much detail as you like about both positives and negatives, and to share a link to this story with friends you think might enjoy it, so that they may be able to provide more feedback. You can do this by right-clicking on the post time at the bottom of this post and clicking "copy link location." Thanks!)
It hadn’t been all that long since everything went dark. Already we were starting to forget, though, what life was like. Everyone was moving on emotionally, and day-to-day structure was based around a new way of life: new chores to be done, new social structures.
It’s surprising, really, how little time it took for people to adjust. Maybe we’d been hearing about the apocalypse, global warming, international catastrophe for so long that when something finally did happen and it wasn’t nearly as bad as we’d expected, we all breathed a sort of sigh of relief, cut our losses, and got used to it. Personally, I found that I was a lot happier without “modern” convenience. I’d begun phasing them out in my personal life anyway. The only thing I did miss, which I missed desperately, was the internet. God I missed the internet.
Night-time was the hardest for most people. After the sun went down, and light switches didn’t work (or in some young people’s cases, weren’t even there at all), people got very introverted. During the day it was easy to distract oneself from the lack of electricity, easy to make up excuses for its absence. A blown fuse, maybe. Or, just as easily, one might have said one was too busy to turn on the lights. But at night, it was undeniable. The lights wouldn’t turn on. Stereos wouldn’t play. Electric stoves wouldn’t boil water.
My mother was loving, but quiet. I loved her tenderly as she did me, but I found I didn’t identify much with her. Growing up it hadn’t been a big deal, but after the big blackout the rift between us widened. It was not because we didn’t love each other, we just handled the whole thing different and we understood that we didn’t really have much to give one another. My little sister was like her, and they kept each other company.
The relationship they had was mirrored by mine with my father. My father had been an electrician, and I was his little girl. I adored him, and we did everything possible together. We were the same person, just with different gender and an age divide. For a while, though, after the “wave,” as people called it, he was just depressed. There was no work for him to do. The thing he loved and had dedicated himself to had, in a flash, simply ceased to exist. That was a tough blow for him. While my mother’s quiet had made me grow distant from her, my father’s silence pulled me into him like a black hole.
I tried everything to cheer him up. Me and Nancy would stage little plays for him in the living room. I’d go a town over to Nuys to get him the jerky he loved. While things like this always put a smile on his face, he would wait until he thought I was satisfied and wasn’t looking and go right back to sulking.
One day in March I was digging through the attic, looking for God knows what, and I stumbled upon an old cardboard box. It was labeled “Ithaca – 2007.” I opened it up to find a photo album. I knew what a photo album was. I pulled it out and flipped it open hesitantly, not out of fear, but rather as though I knew it was filled with amazing secrets, the likes of which would change my life, and I just wanted to spend a few last moments in anticipation, a last breath of air before this would become a time I would look back on, and then the book was open.
On the first page was a man with a beard. He wore big, gaudy black sunglasses indoors. He was making an absurd face and picking his nose. I caught myself off-guard and let out a laugh, a big burst of one gone as quickly as it had come. I turned through page after page of people in their early twenties, with rooms lit up at night, computers ablaze with information streaming at them in high-definition at high-speed, and the only thing in the photos that burned brighter than the electric bulbs were the eyes and smiles of the people.
I was so enraptured by the photos that it hadn’t occurred to me to ask myself of whom they were photos. About twenty pages in, I skipped the question and jumped right to the answer. There were photos of the bearded man and a lady. They were kissing, they were hiking, they were drunk at parties with friends. They were Mom and Dad.
I ran down the stairs, nay, FLEW down them, as though I were afraid that if I didn’t show the album to someone else in time, it would disappear and be as a dream. I couldn’t have that. Couldn’t AFFORD it.
I flew into the kitchen so quickly that I nearly vaulted over a countertop.
“Is this you and Mom?!” I asked, practically accusingly. He never for a moment was shocked or startled, though. He took a fraction of a glance at the photo I was opened to, and suddenly it was as though his eyes were newly-swept chimneys that had been packed shut with mold and soot for ages. He didn’t respond, but he didn’t have to. He took the book from me, his eyes trembling. He stared for a good long while at the photos, occasionally turning a page. I stared at him, rather than at the new photos he was overturning. I could see their content in his face. I was struck dumb by my own awe.
We spent all night up in the attic, digging through boxes of things I’d never known even existed, much less within a few yards of my sleeping head. There were plenty of photos, but also posters, CDs, notes from friends, videotapes, and an entire box of Christmas lights. I had lived through the Blackout, lived before it, but the stories my father told me were such that made the old time so much more real and alive, made me feel so connected to it that it made the blackout obsolete. That night unified past, present, and future for me in a way I couldn’t grasp, and didn’t need to.
The next day, he got to work. We lived in a small town, a suburb, and my father had had his own shed, a workspace with a toolbench and every supply he would need. After his last customer, he’d had enough tools and supplies to last him another month of home-repair jobs.
Every night when the town got dark, my father set to work on the wiring in and around our house.
“What are you doing, Dad?” I would ask him. “The electricity’s gone, remember?” Somehow I thought he’d gotten confused, or maybe he was going senile. I considered it my duty to ground him in the reality of the situation.
“Don’t worry, bug,” he would tell me, “you’ll see.”
After a week or two, our house had lights everywhere. There were big lights in the living room and pointed off the roof at the backyard. There were little baby lights lining stairs, lining the pathways around our home. They pointed at every dark corner of every dark room. He worked all March.
On April first, he stopped working. I woke up early, as I had grown accustomed to doing so that I could watch him work on days that I had no responsibilities. When I walked downstairs, the house was quiet. I was frustrated with myself, thinking he’d already gone out to the shed and I’d missed wishing him a good morning. I stepped outside onto the back porch and looked out at the shed. The door was shut, and the lock was still on it.
By the time I got back upstairs, I was no longer angry with myself. I was angry with him. I was angry that he’d stopped working on a project I knew nothing about, angry at his laziness, angry that I felt I had nothing to look forward to. Mostly, I was just scared that maybe he’d given up, gone back to being depressed.
I burst into his bedroom, where he was still sleeping.
“Daddy!” I yelled. “What are you doing?! You’re supposed to be working!”
He opened is eyes, and with the same calm and certainty I had come to expect, he smirked and said, “What, a man’s not allowed a day off?”
“Well, yeah, but…” I searched for a reason why today couldn’t be his day off. “You can’t yet!”
I was acting like a child, and I knew it. But somehow I didn’t care. Suddenly, my face loosened and I smiled. “Oh, I get it! April fool’s!”
He smiled right back. “I promise you that I’m not done working, and that very soon I’ll have a surprise for you.”
When he finally did wake up late that morning, he left the house with a backpack full of water and a lunch that my mother made for him. He told me and Nancy to make dinner and do some handywork around the house, fixing loose screws and the like. He always made sure that when he was gone, we were working. We liked it, because he would always make sure that he gave us one job that most people thought was just for women, and one job that most people thought was just for men.
On this occasion, he told us to eat without him but save some food. He’d be back a little bit late. Begrudgingly we assented, and he walked out the door with a big and a fresh kiss on either cheek.
When he got back, I was already in bed. I could hear him whistling as he came up the path. I saw him walking with a long stick of metal, as well as a big box. It didn’t seem exorbitantly heavy, but it also didn’t seem like it was easy or light enough to carry over long distances. He put the box in the basement, then took the rod right out to the shed, locked it up. He ate a quiet dinner alone and went to bed.
We had an old elliptical exercise machine in the basement, as well as a stationary bike. In the morning, at breakfast, Dad asked me if I wanted to exercise with him in the basement some time that day.
”Why?” I asked him. It seemed like a ludicrous idea.
“I wanna get rid of this gut!” He shook his belly with one hand. He didn’t have a gut. I laughed. “How am I going to maintain my girlish figure when you beautiful ladies won’t stop feeding me?!” I giggled again and gave him a loving hit on the shoulder.
“Ok, dad. Let’s digest and then I’ll come exercise with you.” And I kept my word. I was just glad to see his good humor and sentiment hadn’t subsided back into depression, and now that it seemed he was not going to work anymore, it would keep him active and feeling good.
We did it every day as the April rains came in. We would go down to the basement and get on the machines and ride at leisurely paces, and sometimes the conversations that started those mornings wouldn’t be finished at dinner.
The thing we loved talking about most was electricity. He had no shortage of things to say, and I never wanted him to stop so I asked more questions.
“Do you know why bulbs always burn out when you first turn them on?”
“Because more power comes to them at first, much in the same way that it requires more force to START pushing an object, to overcome the coefficient of friction, but then it gets easier. So, an old bulb is easily overwhelmed at first by the slightly higher amount of electricity. But you need that initial burst to get it going.”
On the night of the first big thunderstorm of the season, it was getting late and the rain was coming down as hard as it could. At the first clap of thunder, he went out to the shed. My mother yelled at him to come back inside, but he wouldn’t be deterred. He came back to the house with the metal rod. He went down to the basement. When he came back upstairs twenty minutes later, he was sweating. By then, the thunder was practically on top of us, loud as all hell, and the lightning could be seen in sharp bolts within a mile of the house.
He climbed up to the roof carrying the rod. I knew what he was doing. The box in the basement, the exercise, the rod, the sweat on his brow. I knew exactly what he was doing. I knew what WE were doing.
I steadied the ladder as he climbed. He steadied the pole in a slot he’d made, and hooked up a hidden wire either end of it.
I was watching from the lawn.
“Come down, Dad!” I wanted to yelled to him from below. But I was petrified, and excited beyond belief at the same time, so I didn’t say anything. But I didn’t have to.
“I got it, bug! I’m comin’ down now!”
But the lightning struck the rod, now only a few feet away from him, and he missed his footing and slid right down the roof. There was no big dramatic scene, no hanging from the gutter, no screaming for help. In a matter of just a second or two, he’d gone from the roof to the lawn. I just stood where I was, for a moment.
I shook the cobwebs off and took a step forward, but was halted by another bolt of lighting. It was right ahead and above me, hitting square on the bar my Dad had set moments before. I was blinded for a split second, and then stood there. Nothing.
Lightning has a higher probability of striking in a particular place once it has already. They tell you the opposite. By the time I got to my Dad, it hit again. A third time. Just as bright, just as startling.
But this time, the brightness stayed. I was confused. The bolt had come and gone, the clap loud alongside it. But the light had stayed. Kneeling, by now, over my father, it took me a good thirty seconds to realize what was happening. The lights in and around the house were all on. Our entire property was lit up, light pouring out of the windows, down the hill. I was dumbstruck by the sight of it. The generator battery we’d been warming up this whole time was actually maintaining. I completely forgot about Dad, who could very well have been dead beneath me for all I knew.
We lived up on the hill by St. Simon’s, and most people could see our house from theirs. They were all coming up Marison St. I looked down. My father was grinning at me. I could see the bone coming through his old Levis. He didn’t seem to mind. The light falling on his injuries seemed to nullify them, to assuage the throbbing pain he inevitably felt. As the neighbors arrived at the property, they all stood in awe, held one another. People gasped, purely accidentally. It was, undoubtedly, a knee-jerk reaction. Those who did looked around, embarrassed, and covered their mouths. The gasp had just slipped out. This was not something they hadn’t seen before, but it was as if they were the first on Earth to see it. When their hands came away, grins were there to fill the space. Mrs. Jenkins laughed and started dancing around like a lunatic. A jubilant, fire-eyed lunatic. The children followed. Some danced around my father, who was sitting up. The youngest children laid on their bellies right up at the small lights of our path, waiting for them to illuminate their faces with the warmth and brightness of a thousand small flames.You couldn’t see anything but our house and our property. Everything else was swallowed up by the night, as though all of the darkness of our property had been displaced and made the rest of the dark night more concentrated.
But then another bolt struck and the lights flickered and blew out. Sparks flew everywhere, danced down to the lawn. The darkness closed back in and got more watered-down, like before.
As the storm subsided and the stars reappeared, parents carried children down the slope back to houses, and my father, weakened perhaps more by the spectacle than by his injuries, weakly stood and leaned against me. I walked him into the house and gave him some Vodka and a few Tylenols, some of the last we had left. I would take him to the infirmary in the morning.