Youth and Lightning
Once there was a man.
The man was old, and he sat on his creaky rocking chair and stared out at his desert of a lawn. The young boy he'd hired to take care of his lawn hadn't come in weeks.
Ah, to be young. He'd probably found a girl and ran off to the movies, maybe gone out and gotten into trouble alongside his friends. Tasting the bittersweet flavor of rebellion for the first time. The boy was young, and he was exploring, and he had no time for such menial things as mowing an old man's yard. The old man understood this, as he was once a boy. Now youth and exploration had slipped through his fingers, and left him confused and alone, until eventually he became an old man on his own in a two bedroom ranch house, wondering what his hired help was up to at the moment.
Was he sneaking a cigarette? Making love to his latest sweetheart in the back of a car, or maybe going to dinner at her house so he could meet her parents? Was he running through private property, reveling in the thrill of breaking the law? Loving the chase, believing he could never be caught.
To be young.
The old man's arthritis-riddled hands twitched at the memory of a time gone by, and for a moment his straw-colored grass became the great green carpet of the house where he'd lived as a boy. he remembered smelling the sweet grass after a fresh morning rain, dew soaking through his shoes. He remembered the tree he'd found, split down the middle from lightning, that had given him nightmares for weeks. The tree had been large and tall, as any old tree is, and at some point had held a tire swing, but the rope had rotted and the tire had rolled away long before his family had moved there. He remembered the way it looked after it had been split apart, the center blackened and charred like a smoker's lung. each branch had become a mere splinter, bowing to the power of the storm.
The old man couldn't remember why the tree had given him nightmares, but he remembered the dreams, and he would wake up still seeing imaginary smoke curling up from his pure, unburnt arms.
He understood now, though, that as a boy he was terrified of death. The idea of standing too tall and being struck down out of spite horrified him. And for the rest of his life he walked with a hunch.
No longer did he fear death, the end of his life was now a cherished inevitability. Eventually, lightning strikes us all.
The old man saw the mother on the street before she saw him, but she did not seem surprised to see him when she looked up and found him staring. Her eyes met his and he recognized the face of another lightning-struck soul. For some people are struck by the great beam of lightning long before they are buried, and they live out the rest of their days in fiery agony, charred and blackened like the tree but never seeming to lose their remaining leaves.
The old man wondered, often now, if he'd been burning ever since the first time he saw that tree. He wondered how long he'd wandered, burning, just waiting for the smoke to finally ebb and leave nothing but ashes behind.
The woman turned up his driveway and started towards his seat on the porch. She only cast one short look towards his empty husk of a lawn before she turned away, as if the barrenness of it horrified her.
She no longer met his eyes.
She handed him an envelope containing just short of two hundred dollars, a name scrawled on it in rushed pen.
He could not understand, so she handed him a second envelope, this one with a much neater, almost resigned handwriting.
The young boy had written a letter to the old man, telling him that he'd saved every penny that the old man had given. The boy was going to use it to go to college, or so he'd written. But now that he could no longer take care of the lawn, all the money, so he said, was a waste. The young boy had written that the world had changed. Youth was no longer a celebration of exploration, youth was a curse and it had trapped this boy in it's grip. The boy had returned the money to the old man, because he would no longer go to college. He would not go to the movies with his girl or go drinking with his friends or walk the length of the abandoned railroad tracks.
The boy had given up on such frivolous things and turned to a darker ambition. Because to rise tall meant to become a lightning rod, and the boy had beckoned the lightning just like the tree from the old man's childhood.
He had begged for lightning to take him, and when lightning refused he built his own thunder, tied it into a noose and hung himself from a ceiling fan that would now forever be just a bit wobbly every time it was turned on.
He understood now why the mother had ashes in her eyes.
Lightning doesn't just strike the old, it strikes the young as well. It burns and it kills, and everyone knows lightning is contagious.
The old man thought, lightning will strike this woman soon enough. Because she was a mother, and without that she was now nothing at all. Her motherhood had been struck by lightning too soon, and she would spend the remainder of her life craving the lightning, just like her son. She would stand in the water and stretch her tall metal heart to the sky, just waiting for the lightning to finish her off.
And the boy would take his noose of thunder and extend it down to her as a gift. Indeed, he might try to give it to the old man, too, if the old man was any younger.
Lightning strikes us all.