June 2011

Struck

My brother Wayne didn’t remember getting hit by lightening. No one saw it happen either. He was outside, trimming our hedges with his headphones on, and I was upstairs in our bedroom, doing homework with my headphones on. All I saw was a flash of light before it started raining. I didn’t even think of him, assuming he’d come inside a while before.

When my mom came home from work ten minutes later, she found him sitting on the kitchen floor wearing only one sneaker. . He had a stoned expression on his face and dark blood was coming out of his nose and ears while he held his stomach like he’d just eaten some bad seafood.

They kept him overnight in the hospital to make sure he was okay. After that he started to act a little weird. The next day, on the drive home, he opened the window and waved to people who we passed on the street, even the old, one-legged lady who was always sitting on her porch. Previously we had talked about how creepy she was.

“What are you doing?” I asked. Wayne was fourteen and did not raise his hand in class because he was afraid of being wrong; most nights he hardly said ten words at the dinner table. He was weedy thin, his voice just starting to break.

He shrugged. “Do you want to see?” he asked. He was wearing the frayed Penn State sweatshirt that had belonged to our dad, and he lifted it up to show me the small purple dots that were scattered across his skinny chest.

“Like a firework went off in my heart,” he said.

That night at dinner my mother made him chicken noodle soup. Wayne picked up the box of saltines and examined it for a few seconds, holding it in both hands like it was something fragile and rare. “This box is so rectangular,” he said. “It’s so perfect. Have you ever thought about that?” he asked me. “About mathematical perfection?”

“No,” I said. I was sixteen and spent as little time as possible thinking about math. I took the box from his hands and opened a sleeve of crackers.

Our mother said that Wayne could take a few days off of school until he felt like he was back to being himself. “Great,” I said, after he had gone to bed. “He’s going to play this up for weeks.”

Before our father died, we lived in Severton, and in a big house with separate bedrooms. But after he died, we moved here to Crowley, just north of the border with Nebraska. The house belonged to our mother’s aunt and it only had two bedrooms, so Wayne and I shared like we had when we were in grade school. He slept on the bottom bunk and I slept on the top.

In his sleep he talked, mumbling a scroll of unintelligible words. Sometimes when I was falling asleep, in that hazy stage of being half-conscious, the words made sense to me. They sounded like a strange poetry, like understanding the language of parrots or tropical fish. But the next morning I could never even remember the sound of it.

On the third night after Wayne got hit by lightening, I had a bad dream that I forced myself to wake up from. I lay there in bed, my heart pounding in my chest, sweating around the collar of my t-shirt, and I could not remember what it had been about. I could not hear Wayne breathing below me. I got up and saw that he was not in his bed. I went out into living room. He was not there. I looked out the back window and saw the dark figure of him walking down the low slope of our backyard. I thought he must have been sleepwalking.

I stuffed my bare feet in my sneakers and jogged after him. The moon was almost full. He stopped and turned around, not surprised to see me.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“I came after you,” I said. “What are you doing out here?”

“I’m going to go visit Miss Ann,” he said.

“Who?”

“She lives down there,” he said, pointing. At the edge of the backyard was a small stream, and on the other side was a cluster of houses near the end of the road. Our house was out in the middle of nowhere, and I had not met any of the neighbors since we’d moved in. “In the blue house. She has insomnia. I guess you can come.” He shrugged.

I followed him across yard to the stream, dew seeping into my sneakers. “Do you always come out here at night?” I ask.

“The past few nights,” he said. “Miss Ann was walking her dog and she invited me inside.” He was silent for a second. “So how’s Carolynn Hughes? he asked.

“What?” I said, then instantly regretted sounding so surprised. I had never told him about Carolynn Hughes; I had never spoken a word about her to anyone. She sat two rows in front of me in American History, and everything about her was beautiful—her hair, her lips, the way she laughed, the way she held her books as I watched her from down the hallway. I knew I would never speak to her; I had already vowed that this year I would not even bother trying to make friends. If anyone looked at me wrong or said something stupid to me, I would fight them. Solitude and anger would fry my brain like a drug. I was counting on it.

So instead of talking to Carolynn Hughes, I wrote long, desperate letters to her on paper bags and the backs of envelopes. I dreamt of the names of streets where we would rent a house after college. A one-story with a detached garage. We could go into the bathroom by the science lab or the trees behind the marching band’s practice field and share our bodies with one another. I dreamt of her reading these letters and not being freaked out in anyway. But more than that I wished for a time in the future when I did not think of her constantly, when the desire for her would leave me, and I could no longer conjure up the image of her face at will.

Wayne must have found the letters, even though I had hidden them in shoebox under my desk, and figured it out somehow because I had never dared to write down her name.

We were at the stream and Wayne pointed to one of the houses. “That’s where Mr. Myers lives,” he said. “He used to teach high school in Fort Worth, but he slept with one of his students. A field hockey player. He doesn’t want anyone to know.”

“Then how do you know that?” I asked.

“I know many things.”

“Okay,” I said. I opened my mouth and shut it. The correct response to that was out there, somewhere in the universe, far away.

“I think I’m going to take a vow of silence,” he said. He did not look at me as he spoke, his eyes on something dark in the distance. “And a vow of celibacy.”

I did not say anything. We crossed the stream at a place where the water was shallow, stepping carefully on rocks that poked out of the surface.

We walked through the backyard of one of the houses, past a clothesline and a vegetable garden. The lights were on in the kitchen. Wayne went up the two wooden steps to the backdoor and knocked. Miss Ann opened the door, smiling when she saw Wayne.

“Oh, you brought your brother,” she said excitedly, like someone had just given her an unexpected gift.

“Hi, it’s nice to meet you,” I said, even though I did not sound like it was nice to meet her. I sounded tired. She was an older woman, maybe in her early sixties, heavy set with died blonde hair and thick glasses. The skin under her eyes and on her chin was crowded with fine lines that intersected with one another and branched out.

“Wayne told me all about you last night,” she said.

Wayne sat down at the kitchen table like he lived there and looked at him like I wanted an explanation, but he didn’t look at me. I was afraid to ask.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “It was good things. Sit down, I’m making some tea.”

I sat down at the table across from Wayne. The kitchen was crowded, cookbooks on one shelf; on another was a bright orange alarm clock and antique windup toys on another– a panda, a frog, a mouse. There were pegs on a wall where potholders were hanging. They were all ugly, some misshapen with messy fabric paint hearts and suns and rainbows.

“Miss Ann’s scout troop made those,” Wayne said. “For her birthday. Brownies, right?”

“Yes,” she said to us over her shoulder as she poured water from a kettle into mugs. “Troop two-seventy-two.”

Wayne nodded. “They’re second and third graders. They’re going camping next weekend. Someone always cries on camping trips.”

“Some of them have never been away from home for a night,” Miss Ann said. She walked over to the table and placed a mug of tea in front of me. “It’s hot so be careful.”

I didn’t usually drink tea. “Thank you,” I said.

“All those screaming children,” Wayne said, shaking his head. “I couldn’t stand it. You have far more patience than I do.” He took a sip of his tea.

“Do you have kids?” I asked.

“Yes, a daughter. She’s grown now, she lives in Ohio with her boyfriend,” she said. She started to talk about her daughter and I tried to take a sip of my tea.

When she was finished speaking Wayne looked down at the table. “Last night I had a dream about Henry,” he said.

“Henry?” I asked.

“Miss Ann’s husband,” Wayne said. “He’s dead.”

I had this sinking feeling in my stomach, like this should not be something we were talking about. “Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry to hear that.” I became acutely aware of the clock on the wall ticking as the seconds passed.

“Did he say anything in the dream?” Miss Ann asked. She did not seem at all shocked by Wayne saying this, as if he told her he’d gone to a movie or played video games all day.

“He said that this fall you should go to that farm,” Wayne said. “And pick blueberries.”

“Oh, we went there once,” Miss Ann said, smiling. “One fall it was so nice.”

I knew what farm she was talking about; we passed it on the way to school in the mornings. They had a hand-painted wooden sign and a vegetable stand by the road that was always crowded on the weekends.

“I think I will do that,” Miss Ann said. “Maybe you boys could come with me.”

Wayne nodded gravely.

“Wayne, this isn’t cool,” I said finally.

“What?”

“Stop making stuff up.”

“I’m not making anything up,” he said. “I had this dream.”

“Just because you get hit by lightening doesn’t mean you get to start acting weird and making things up about dead people.”

“I’m not making anything up,” Wayne said. “It’s not my fault you don’t believe me.”

“Boys, calm down,” Miss Ann said. “It’s nothing to get upset about, Alan. He just had a dream, okay?”

But I was not calm. My hand made a fist, and I wanted to hit him.

“I had a dream about Dad too,” Wayne said after a moment. “But it was real, it was like he was there. I talked to him.”

“Wayne, shut up,” I said. “Just shut up. I’m so sick of this.” We did not talk much about our Dad since he died. He was drunk and not wearing a seatbelt. His head smashed on the pavement like someone dropping a watermelon out of a window. Our grandma had put a white cross up on the side of the road where it had happened, but we did not live there anymore, so we did not have to drive past it. I dreaded the day when I could no longer conjure up the image of him at will.

“I’m not making things up,” he said. “I’m not.”

I could tell that he was about to start crying; he was biting the inside of his lip. I stood up from the table. “We should go,” I said. “There’s school tomorrow.”

As I walked out, I heard Miss Ann say that it was nice to meet me, but I did not say anything in response. Wayne was behind me and he ran to catch up. He tried to touch my arm.

“I’m not making stuff up,” he said. “It’s like now I can see things more clearly. It’s different from before.”

I stopped walking for long enough to look at him. We were by the stream. “Listen, you can’t act like this though,” I said. “You can’t be saying this stuff about dead people, Wayne. It’s not okay. You have to act like a normal person. You can’t be freaking mom out and stuff.”

“Alright,” he said. “But I really did have a dream about dad. I wasn’t making that up.”

“Okay,” I said. “What’d he say then?”

He thought for a moment, like I had asked him a difficult question. “He said that he loves you. And that he’s worried about you. That you should let the creepy lonely guy act go.” He bent down by the stream and picked up a stone from underneath the water. He handed it to me. “I think you know what to do with this,” he said.

The stone was cold and wet in my palm. I remembered a summer years ago, when I was maybe seven. Our dad had taken us to the lake to fish and showed us how to skip stones across the surface of the water. Except I couldn’t figure out how to do it, no matter how many times I tried, the rocks I picked up just sank straight to the bottom. Wayne had laughed at me while my dad smiled along with him, and I had been so mad I hadn’t talked to them for the rest of the afternoon.

I looked at the stone in my hand. Turning in the direction the stream was flowing, I threw it as hard as I could. It landed somewhere far off, where I couldn’t hear the splash.