* 3rd Prize Winner in the 2015/16 Exeter Writers Short Story Competition *
He snuck up on us, slow, making no noise, his bare feet soft on the grass and creeping, like a wolf might creep up on sheep in the fold. No, not like a wolf, but something less bold, like mice that sneak into the barn where grain is stored and the cat don’t even hear. The lightest wind played ‘cross the tops of the trees, and the soot-scatter crows kept to their settled nests, and the screech-owl held its fright-full breath.
‘Course, I knew he was there. I always knew. Like a bad penny he was. I could sense him near, even when I couldn’t see him. Even on days when the wind carried the smell of him away from where I was, even then I knew.
Evie caught me listening, straining to hear him cowering under cover of the hawthorn in late flower. Evie, hair the colour of straw ‘fore it is cut and eyes as blue as the sky can be and flecks of amber adrift in that blue, and all the young men in the village had an itchy thought for Evie, and the older men, too, I shouldn’t wonder, and she was sitting with me in the near dark and her hand folded in mine. I laid a finger ‘cross my pressed lips so she could see and I said nothing.
We waited, in something like brittle silence, only the softest wind making small whispers in the leaves ‘bove us. We sat close enough we was touching. I could feel her warmth reaching me through her clothes, her breath on my cheek. I was a little dizzy, there in our place where we thought ourselves hidden – ‘cept he had found us. Dizzy I was, from the bottle of wine we’d finished, bitter as unripe fruit, dreadful to taste, but making us braver than we was. Brave enough for first kisses and first touches. At least ‘fore he was there.
The fire had dwindled – no more flame, just glow. The crack and spit of new wood burning had given way to the snuffle of ash, and the shadows at our backs crept a little nearer and Guthrie was hidden but known. I cursed him then, a part of me did, cursed all the days he had been as a chain ‘round my neck, heavy and dragging, always needing, always near.
And this Evie-night, I knew he was there again, not just a feeling in me, but the wind was ‘gainst him. I could smell the sourness of his sweat, like milk that has turned or meat that has been left hanging; and the earthy punch of his clothes I could smell, too. I could also hear him, the small and smaller sounds of him, animal noises, like sighs or sobs, like a dog when it has been whipped or left alone.
‘Who goes there?’ said Evie, her voice all sudden excitement and thrill. She laughed, curled into me, and her palm laid flat against me.
He stepped out of the shadows then, made seeming-bold by Evie’s call, his head bent and his face turned a little from us, as if he was scared to look.
‘Guthrie, what is it you’re after wanting?’ I said.
He stole a look at us, at me not at Evie. Not quick that look, not snatched, but the slow and glazed eye of one who is up later than he should be. I wasn’t sure, but maybe there was a smile that played ‘bout the corners of his mouth.
‘I missed you,’ he said. ‘I did. I missed you terrible. I missed you so as I was crying and my eyes stung, like pins was in ‘em, and I saw pictures, all watery and old, pictures that was a long time ago. It hurt me what I saw. There was things missing you see.’
He was ruining everything, as he had before, all the girls before – and they was not many. He was ruining what I was making with Evie, a girl in every man’s thinking down in the village, but not in Guthrie’s thinking – ‘cept that she’d taken a brother briefly from him.
‘I’d like to know why ‘tis that you can’t just close your eyes and not see the pictures,’ I said.
‘There was a boat this time, bigger as a house and out on the water. Still it was being, like in the poem, like ‘a painted ship ‘pon a painted ocean’, not moving, like it could not. The wind was missing, see.’
He did not mean the wind. He meant me. I was the one who was missing. Not where I was most nights. Not beside him in our kitchen, bread turning to toast on long-handled forks in front of the fire, and stories begged for and won and making pictures in Guthrie’s head as he listens. Not any of this tonight, and I was the wind missing in Guthrie’s story.
In the trees above us, picked out in white and yellow, the flowers of horsechestnut, and hidden acorns green in their cups. And ‘bout us the unfurled fans of ferns, waving, and birch-branch fingers pointing, all pointing towards Guthrie and his talk of things missing.
‘In ‘nother picture there was the police, shadow-dark suits and shiny starbright buttons, and they was down by the ‘lotments, searching. Only they did not see me stealing the potatoes out of the ground, for their heads was all gone, nothing to put their helmets on, so they carried ‘em under their arms.’
He was just making things up now. Not for Evie’s sake, but for mine. He edged a little nearer and sneaked another look, to see what picture was in my face.
‘Guthrie, you should go back,’ I told him.
He pretended not to hear. Instead he launched into another story fragment with his arms waving and his face lit up and his voice all laughing and loud.
‘And there was a man turning cartwheels ‘cross a field, arms and legs all starflung, like a cat hit by a car, like the minister’s cat that was run over by the bus, and that cartwheel-man tumbling, and the man had no voice. The voice was missing.’
‘Guthrie!’ I shouted, cutting across him and pulling him out of his pictures.
He stopped then and his arms fell slack by his sides and his head dipped and he looked as one who waits to be punished for the wrong he has done.
Evie pressed her hand against me, flat on my chest, holding back my temper, and she made a soft kiss-cooing noise, a sound like courting doves make.
I drew breath.
‘Go home, Guthrie,’ I said. ‘Wait for me there. I’ll walk Evie back to the village and be beside you ‘fore you’re asleep. ’
‘You’ll be back soon?’ said Guthrie.
‘Quick as quick and quick as lickety split.’
‘As fast as Lightning Boy?’ he said.
Then Guthrie looked at Evie, grinning, like he’d won something from her. ‘Fast as Lightning Boy,’ he said to her, and then he turned on his heel and walked back into the dark.
Evie laughed when he was gone, and she said he was sweet, Guthrie was, and it was good what I did, how I cared for him and how much he looked to me. ‘Girls like that,’ she said, and she slipped her hand inside my shirt and leaned into me.
I made my ears briefly sharp again, just in case Guthrie hadn’t really left us, and I sucked in air, breathed through my nose, searching for him in the night-scents, and I tried to feel if he was near. Then, when I was sure he was gone, as sure as ever sure is, and I thought only the moon and the blind crows in their nests and the muffled screech-owl were witness to what Evie and I were ‘bout, I gave up on Guthrie.
Afterwards, after me an Evie was done and we was lying flat and breathless ‘gainst the hill and watching the ghost-clouds shifting across the night sky and listening to the wind picking up and the rising whispers in the trees, then Evie asked me ‘bout ‘Lightning Boy’.
I shrugged. ‘It’s just a story,’ I said. ‘Silly really.’
‘I think it’s going to rain, ‘ I said, for there was a change in the air, and I noticed a new gutsiness to the wind and the clouds glowering more than before.
‘Tell me,’ she said again.
The words were in my head then, like they was conjured out of her asking for ‘em, the whole story speaking to me, wanting to be told because someone wanted to hear it.
‘Tell me,’ she said, and suddenly not telling her would be wrong, like keeping a secret from her, though it was nothing. I sat up with my back to Evie and I closed my eyes and thought of toast and Guthrie squat in front of the fire at home and rocking on his heels and saying ‘Tell me,’ and Evie here saying the same. I cleared my throat and began.
‘Once there was a boy who was slow as syrup pulled from a spoon, or black treacle. Everything he did he did slow so that he was always late for school or for meals, or for church on Sundays. And he got a whipping each time he was late, so that he swore ‘gainst the world and everything in it and he punched the air and cursed. Then one sullen sulky day he climbed out onto the roof of his house and sat hunched like a crow on the highest point and no-one knew he was there. And he looked for new stars coming, but saw only clouds, sluggish and dark and heavy. The hairs on the boy’s arms stood on end and he tasted metal or blood on his tongue and there was a ringing in his ears – a storm was ‘bout to break, and being on the roof was not wise or safe.’
‘And he got hit by lightning, right?’ said Evie, impatient like Guthrie was sometimes.
I nodded. ‘And he was never the same afterwards,’ I said. ‘He was changed. He was quick as quick ever after, and never tired. He ran every place he went and hurried through all the tasks, and he could not sit still, not even in church when God wanted stillness. He paced at the back of St Agnes’ church and sang the hymns a little faster than the organ or the congregation, and his end-of-prayer-amens came out of his mouth before they came out of the minister’s. And he was first in school and first home again and first to table and first to leave. You never saw a boy so fast, and his mam made new scolds and said he should take his time and not be always rushing. It was not good for him, she said, and his dad said the same. And the teacher in school could not keep up with the boy so he was sent on quick errands when there was no more work to pen. And at night, the boy was quickly done with sleep and so he walked the floor of his room, impatient for morning to come, and he talked to himself, and the words came out fizzing and blurred, and he drew pictures on his walls using charcoal from the fire, and he wrote poetry on the walls, too, and when there was no space on those walls he moved into the barn and started over.’
It was raining then. There on the hill, on Evie and on me, in spite of the trees, a warm gobbet-thick rain that soaked through my shirt and dripped off the ends of my hair and my nose. Evie sighed and I did not know if it was the rain or the story that had brought such a sigh from her. I think maybe she sensed that it would not end well for the Lightning Boy. I’d told the tale a hundred times to Guthrie, and not once in all that time had he picked up on this. Every telling was a new sad surprise to Guthrie. Evie laid a hand on my back and told me to go on, made those shapes with her mouth at least but the words holding so little sound. I cleared my throat and continued with the story.
‘Soon people began to notice a difference in the boy. The weight slipped from him and he was pale and his eyes like dark and darker holes. His mother said he should eat, but there was not time enough for eating. He was in too much of a hurry, this boy who had once been slow as spoon-syrup. And one day, out of the blue and not looked for, a girl took his hand, snatched for it and caught it, the prettiest girl in school and he could see that. She held onto his hand tight so he could not pull away, and she asked him where he was hurrying to. And the boy had no answer for the girl, and she leaned in close and kissed him on the lips, the pink-teasing tip of her tongue in his mouth and her hand warm ‘gainst his cheek. She thought that would keep him from rushing off – it was a trick she had used before.’
Evie was then the girl in the story and she kissed me the same and her hand soft as imagining on my cheek, and I wasn’t going anywhere fast.
‘And did it?’ said Evie. ‘Did a girl’s kisses stop the boy?’
I shook my head. ‘Soon as she let go of his hand he was off again and the girl was left with only tears and a taste of metal or blood on her tongue. And the boy, pale as a ghost, ran from her and never did stop, not even when he reached the very edge of things, and he jumped from this world into the next and perhaps he is running there still.’
‘Jumped from this world into the next,’ Evie said, and she wiped rain or tears from her face and said it was the saddest story she’d ever heard.
‘Just a story,’ I said.
‘Lightning Boy,’ she said, and even I was sad when she said it like that.
I walked Evie home after, taking our time, and she held my hand tight in hers, tight as not ever letting go, and she asked me questions ‘bout the story, wanting more than was in the words that I’d said.
‘Did the girl love the boy? Hum? If she’d said she did would that have made a difference? Did the boy love the girl, love her kissing him and maybe that’s why he ran so hard at the end and ran so far? Was he scared of love after all? Is that what it was?’
The sky lit up blink-silver and the rain became heavier and the clouds clattered like beaten drums or hollow barrels rolling over stone.
I shrugged for reply. I wasn’t sure of the answers to what Evie asked. I don’t think she was really talking about the story. I told her Lightning Boy had no choice. He had to run. That was who he was, and there was nothing he could do about it.
‘Like you having to look after Guthrie?’ Evie said at last.
I had no reply to that either. She reached up and kissed me one more time, a soft kiss and whispering. She said she loved me, and she understood if I had to keep on running, and the last of her was a smile.
I was late in returning home and all my spoon-syrup thoughts were Evie-thoughts. Guthrie was not in front of the fire when I got to the end of the long walk, and not at the table drawing charcoal pictures on old paper as I expected. He was not in his bed neither, not asleep and not dreaming of ships missing the wind or policemen without heads or windmill-men with no voices. He was not anywhere in the house. I called his name and said I was coming ready or not, like it was a game he was playing – we did that sometimes. I went from room to room and every window was thrown open and everywhere rain leaking in. I looked in all the dark places. I promised him stories, and buttered toast, and tea with three sugars. Still there was no Guthrie, no sniggering to give him away, not under the beds or behind the sofa or in the spider-dark-space ‘neath the stairs.
The back door was wide. I went out and a small smirr-rain was still falling from out of a bruised-black sky and far off there was the sound of thunder moving away from us, softer now and muffled. And there on the sudden stone path, arms spread like a bird, and the wings broken, was Lightning Boy, pale as a ghost and still, his clothes green-smeared with roof moss and roof tiles like broken bits of old silver beside him, everything glistening wet.
‘Guthrie,’ I shouted, my voice sharp as glass or blade, as if, like before, I could call him out of the picture he had made and he would get to his feet, his arms limp by his sides and his head dipped, expecting censure - but he was all the picture he was and something new was missing, in him and in me, and Evie’s kisses, though still warm, was suddenly as charcoal or ash in my cottonball mouth.