Where I grew up, summers brought tremendous thunderstorms. I could, and often did, sit on my porch and watch the storms build on the horizon. The wind started as a gentle breeze through the screens. Before long, the temperature dropped and raised goosebumps on my arms and legs. The birch trees in the front yard thrashed about in the gale, and the clouds shut out the sun. Thunder grumbled, not much louder than my stomach when I was hungry, but steadily its volume climbed and sharpened into tumbling, concussive waves. I could hear the windows shake in their frames and feel the force of the sound in my teeth and ribs. Flashes in the clouds brought a smile to my face. The lightning was the show I anticipated. Tension grew in my forehead from keeping my eyes open, afraid to miss any of the forking bolts. My pulse quickened with each cloud-splitting flash, better than any fireworks. My dad shared this appreciation for storms, and we would often watch, and comment after the exceptional strikes and deafening booms.
One weekend, after a large storm had raged through the valley the previous night, my dad asked me if I wanted to take a walk. I was still small enough that walks normally meant trips to the corner store. Usually we went to buy a newspaper, and maybe some candy, so of course I agreed. Only when we reached the store, he didn’t give it a second glance. That peaked my curiosity, but when I asked about our destination, he only promised me something neat. My mind raced to all of the things it might be, and of course I wasn’t even close in my guesses. The minds of most children, and mine was no different, easily leap to the fantastical. Mine actually still does that.
We approached a house with a waist-high chain-link fence around a lush yard. An older man was outside raking up twigs and leaves from the storm. My dad obviously knew him, but I couldn’t remember meeting the man at church or around town. Dad introduced him to me, I’ll call him Mr. B, and invited us through the gate. It was no surprise to him why my dad was there, though I still had no idea. I followed them around to the back of the enormous house. Once we rounded the corner, they stopped. Dad waved me in front of him to see the giant tree stump. It rose three times my height out of the ground. It was split in half down the middle, and the stump’s top was all ragged points and splinters. The upper three quarters of the tree rested on the ground and a flattened section of the chain-link fence.
“You should’ve heard the noise it made. Like dynamite going off,” Mr. B said, leaning on his rake.
“Lightning did that?” I had started to figure out what happened.
“That’s not all!” Mr. B smiled, but I couldn’t imagine what was so amusing about a wrecked fence.
“It hit the tree and jumped to the fence. The metal lit up, blue with the heat. Then it must’ve come inside the house along the water pipes.”
Lightning in the house? I had no idea it could get inside. Dad and I had sat on the porch during the whole storm, just grinning like idiots when we could’ve been killed at any moment.
“Blew up the clothes washer. Lucky Mrs. B had finished washing dishes a little before the storm got bad. Hate to think of what it could’ve done to her with the water running.” He shook his head.
Mr. B and Dad talked about a lot of stuff I didn’t follow after that, like insurance and new washer models. I couldn’t tear my eyes from the tree, as I imagined the bolt striking it. On the way home, Dad explained how the lightning boiled the tree sap, and the steam split the trunk faster than we could blink. Fireworks never did that, I supposed.
I’ve never lost my fascination with lightning. It features heavily in a novel I’m outlining, used by an alien race the way we might flick on a light switch. Maybe someday humanity will control the power and fury of such storms, harnessing the electricity to more mundane ends. It’s never far from my thoughts, when the clouds darken and my dog quakes at my feet. I know it’s coming, and I stay inside.