Bolt of Lightning

April 2, 2008
By
Joelle flung the door open to her house, dropping her school bag on the floor. She called over one shoulder that it would be a huge help if I could just grab her mail. We were waiting to hear college responses from Maryland, our first choice, and the other schools we had decided we’d both apply to. As I flipped through the letters, I’d saw a letter from Michigan that caused my heart to race. We hadn’t applied to Michigan because it was too far away and flying made us nervous. My chest hurt, like I had just run a mile in the cold.
Joelle was oblivious to my pounding heart. She talked about the upcoming vacation, the black and white prints she was developing for her photography class, and getting a new comforter for college. She leaned on the island in her kitchen, flipping through a catalogue that lay earmarked. I was silent. And still my heart raced. “Do you think this is too tacky for a prom dress?” She held up the magazine and I shrugged. Michigan? I thought. Joelle laughed, “Boys are so clueless.”
She walked towards her refrigerator and flung the door open. The picture we took at our eighth grade graduation fluttered from the movement, nearly slipping off the door. Aside from her bare feet, she was invisible from my seat at the kitchen table. I tossed the mail onto the already cluttered surface. She shut the door, her scrawny arms pushing hard. Biting into her apple, she came to sit down next to me. “Did anything come from schools?”

I had put the Michigan letter in my jacket pocket. “No, just bills I think.” She rolled her eyes and then looked at the clock hanging above my head.
“We should probably go back. I can’t do suicides for lateness again; my legs are already killing me.” I stood up, noisily pushing back the chair and heading for the door. She never told me she wanted to go to Michigan.
Joelle followed me outside, pulling the blue door shut. We headed in the direction, both turning onto Main Street instead of Mercer. We always took the long route. Today was no exception, even though the sky was darkening.

With Joelle walking on my right, we passed Coleman’s Grocery. The green door was open, and swaying in the light wind. “You want some gummy bears?” Joelle asked. I shook my head. “You’re no fun. I’m so in the mood for the red ones. Are those cherry flavored or strawberry, I can never—”

“Then go get them,” I interrupted.

“I think they’re closed. I guess I’ll check after practice or something.” I touched the letter in my pocket. I was walking ahead of her, and my calves were tense. I felt like running, to make my footsteps match my racing heart, and to keep running until I reached the sign welcoming me into the next town over. Maybe I would keep running still.

I chose to keep walking, instead slowing my pace so she could catch up. The first drop of rain hit my shoulder, and I looked up as though to accuse the sky. Joelle didn’t notice.

The playground of our elementary school was abandoned as we approached it. The swings were still swaying in the wind. Joelle looked at her watch, and grabbed my hand excitedly. Her small hands were cold. Droplets clung to her hair and the shoulders of her shiny red raincoat.

“We haven’t been on those swings in forever,” Joelle said.

We hadn’t. Kids still swung on the swings, grabbing the rusted chains, but we didn’t. Growing older had taken us by surprise. So much, so fast. Hard to maintain innocence. High school. What can you do?

“Look. The sky is going to clear up, and we have time before practice,” Joelle said, dragging my mind away from the feel of the envelope between my thumb and forefinger. “We should go on them.” I straightened up, stretching my back. I wasn’t looking at her face, but I could hear her. “It will be fun.”

She pulled on my hand like a little kid and I looked at the swings for a long time. I tried to remember what it was like, when my legs were short enough that they swung down instead of dragging. I nodded at her, and with a slow gait, I let her pull me past the hand painted fence. “I feel like these are the last days we have to really hang out,” I said. “You know, after the letters come it’s all going to change.”

Joelle didn’t say anything to me again until we were both sitting on the swings. She moved higher and higher as I kept my legs awkwardly on the ground. “I’m sure it will all work out,” she replied.

“I guess,” I said, but no guesswork was required; she was already floating away.

“The more important topics though,” she slowed down, and I watched her swing like a pendulum, back and forth, “is prom.” I stared at the gravel below my feet. “Finding a date is going to be such a pain, and Dylan already asked Erica. Did he tell you?
He hadn’t, but I still nodded. “Yeah, he mentioned it.”

She grabbed the chain of my swing and raised an eyebrow, smiling. “I guess they’ll be cute together.” Her black hair was pulled back for track, and I could see the faint scar along her jaw from third grade, when she had told me it was a good idea to push her on the swings. I did it lightly, but she’d insisted I push her higher and ended up falling.

My shoes had come untied, and the white laces were soaked a damp gray. When I bent to tie them, I could feel the letter through my jacket, digging into my leg. We were both silent; Joelle dragged her feet against the gravel until we were at even heights. I figured she was ready to go, but she stayed quiet and stared off at the rest of the playground equipment.
A bolt of lightning appeared far off in the sky, lighting up the horizon. Joelle stood up and grabbed her black track bag from the floor as it started to pour. “Let’s go.”

We walked away from the playground, the swings still moving in our absence. I looked around the neighborhood, to see if anyone else was out in the rain. It didn’t look that way; I only saw Joelle, who walked right into puddles, soaking her red sneakers and humming.
The swing set vanished as we turned the corner. There was nothing but gray: gray on the road, gray clinging to the buildings and homes, gray in the sky; and our trail through the gray. I stuck my cold hands into my pocket and felt the letter there, slightly bent and becoming damp. There was no way I could mention it now. She had lied in the first place, but now I felt obligated to keep the charade going. To pretend I didn’t know. Water started to drench my socks and I clamped the letter tighter in my fist. One of the corners jabbed my palm.

I looked at her steadily. “Promise we’ll go to school together.”

“We will,” she said, and started to hum again.

I slowed my pace and pressed on. “Yeah, you say that now. What if we get accepted to different schools? You know some of your safeties are my reaches.” My voice was getting louder. I stood in the middle of the sidewalk and it took her a moment to stop and look at me.

“I won’t.”

“You might.”

She waited for me to go on. Her hands were almost glowingly pale when set against the dark sky. They were getting rained on, and I could almost see the blue veins appear on them. That only happened when she was cold. Or nervous.

“Are you frozen from the rain?” I pulled my hand from my pocket and took hers, warming it up. We didn’t speak. The sky was starting to get lighter. A few heavy, wet drops hit our heads as we picked up the pace. We reached the school and entered the green walled building that smelled of paint and spring, and we walked faster, knowing we were almost late for practice. Wet floor signs had been placed around the halls; the school ceilings had been leaking since December. We walked through the signs, but they were placed so sporadically I wasn’t sure where exactly I might trip up. She was humming again.

“Why would I want to leave you?” She picked up the conversation out of nowhere like she always did.

“Come on Joelle,” I said. “You love meeting new people.”

“Yes, but we’re going to do that together. Right?”

“I’ll just hold you back.”

We passed Eddy Norman. He stood in the doorway of the school’s auditorium where the drama kids were practicing for the upcoming show. Joelle smiled and asked him how rehearsal was going. “The usual. You coming to see it?” He had a baritone voice, and Joelle’s musical laughter complemented it. “Of course,” she responded. He looked at me. “What about you Ben?” I nodded and started to walk towards the track field, leaving Joelle behind to keep talking. The air in school was starting to feel stale.
We could both be new people in college, I reasoned. It would be like moving to a new town, but better. As we reached the track, my calves tensed up and again I wanted to run. My new sense of freedom kept coming, pouring in from wells I hadn’t known existed in my mind. No more standing by Joelle while she laughed with some college’s Eddy Normans.
Joelle, with her dimples, wit, and easy laugh, would do fine without me. She was a great friend. All kindness, rare lies. Such subtlety in her smarts, such tact with others. I certainly trusted her. Almost as much as she trusted me. I swung open the doors again and stepped into the rain for a second time. I felt her presence behind me, still talking to Eddy, but nonetheless able to fill the space around me. I pulled off my jacket, and yelled to Coach Williams that I had arrived. Reaching the track, I took a deep breath and started to run.





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