When the lightning storms first started we turned to bowling—a nice, grounded sport where the ball rarely left the floor and the shoes felt insulated. We played until my grandma started cursing at the pins, strolling out into the lane, and they kicked us out. My family can’t help but embarrass ourselves. It’s genetics. I’ve been trying to leave them for years but I’m a loser myself. Which is fine, really. Often, it’s fun.

We walked outside to a blue-black sky and imploding thunder. The air itself began to crackle. My squirrely nephew’s hair levitated.

“Dry thunderstorm,” my cousin’s boyfriend called it. No one likes him.

“God throwing a fit,” Dad proposed.

The storm continued into the night, the flash-bang of lightning and thunder, the empty pocket of space we all prayed rain would fill. I found an old girlfriend who let me sleep in the same bed as her. We tucked our hands in each other’s hoodie pockets and found a breathing rhythm. 

Lightning lit up her beige shades. The thunder followed, booming, shaking the thin drywall foundation.

“I think I’d marry you right at this moment,” I told her.

“I think I’d say yes,” she replied.

We left it at that.

She fell asleep with her shin resting on top of mine. I wondered if bone could conduct electricity. I retreated to the couch for the night.

***

The storm would leave, the sky scrubbed clean to antiseptic blue, but it always returned. The dark blockade of clouds seemed to sink to just above our heads, lightning skittering across their undersides. My aunt, who hadn’t been well in years, tried to knock the clouds out of the sky with a broom. Our belly buttons grew staticky and our necks grew strained from craning up. A bolt ran straight down the chimney of our pastor and missed his youngest daughter by a yard as it shot across the living room. We fell to our knees more as the days passed and prayed out of convenience. In the dry fields of Iowa, we discovered the scarecrow had raised his hands to the sky, shocked or asking for deliverance.

***

Our grandfather got struck and died. It happened while he was driving his car, a 1987 Buick Lesabre that damn near crawled on the ground. The sheriff said it was impossible for lightning to hit you in a car—something about the rubber tires passing the charge off to the ground. The mortician, my aunt’s ex, said he must have had a heart attack, surprised at the sudden jolt.

He was the only good one in my family, Grandpa, although none of us had been there to watch him grow up. He found a way to treasure everyone in this kingdom of insects and wind and tire swings. He taught my cousins and me how to fight with a heavy bag and wrapped knuckles and the reward of a warm beer at the end of it. We were young so he made sure it was a light beer.

I had no steadfast ritual to get rid of the pain that cradled my heart like a sickly newborn. I tried praying, long drives, and even watching his old VHS movies. We had nothing in common, really, and I had never been one to pen a letter with no one to hand it off to. But I loved him with my whole damn heart, and he took on that love whenever I came around. It hurt more than I expected because I had never admitted to myself that he might die.

Grief, mourning, closure. People kept throwing the same words at me. I nodded so that they’d think they helped me identify something.

***

We met up on the side of the road where Grandpa had died. There wasn’t much there—some scrub brush, a section of an old fence, rusty barbed wire snaking around the pockmarked slats. They say lightning won’t strike the same place twice. As usual, they are wrong. The tops of the wooden posts were exploded, scarred black.

Grandpa had been cremated so my uncle spread him out on the dry ground. We said a few words. I watched the wind whisk away parts of my grandpa.

The rain came after a while, swift and punishing. It pounded away at Grandpa’s ashes and carried him off in little rivulets. He spread out across the land.

We had been waiting for the rain so long we didn’t know how to react. I wanted to celebrate but didn’t have the heart to muster it. People peeled off, cold and shivering, getting in their cars and squealing away. I let myself cry then, under the cover of rain. I cried more than I ever had until my body wrung itself clean out.

I drove home and sat in my living room in my wet clothes. My clothes clung to my pebbled skin as I listened to the pitter-patter rain hit the roof. The cold sunk deep down into my marrow. I sat there all night and made up stories of what my grandpa did when he was young.

***

I set up a metal rod in the front yard to redirect the strikes near my house. All my family came over and sat in the living room to watch the storm that weekend. I didn’t even invite them, they just started showing up. The house was packed. Our socks on the carpet turned the living room into an electrical cloud.

I passed out beers. We scooched the chairs together and let the kids kneel near the window. The storm crackled, but we didn’t flinch. We watched, calm as seasoned sinners, and dared God to take us all.

© Alex Juffer
[This piece was the winner of the 2022 Forge Flash Fiction Competition]