The match flared orange and momentarily suffused crisp December air with an oddly soothing aroma of sulfur and smoke. Matt touched it to the end of his cigarette and inhaled deeply. Eyes closed, he exhaled a dragon-esque cloud and leaned against the church’s brick wall.
“I thought you quit.”
Matt cracked an eye and adjusted his glasses. His childhood confidant and cousin Renee stood beside him, one hand pressed to her lower back, the other supporting the weight of her eighth month of pregnancy. Thick, chestnut curls framed wide, impish green eyes and a crooked smile.
“I quit.” Matt took another drag of his cigarette and tried to angle the smoke away from her. “But even a condemned man gets a last smoke before facing the firing squad.”
“Grandpa’s dead.” Renee snatched the cigarette, then ground it out on the sidewalk. “You’re just giving the eulogy in front of a bunch of grieving relatives.”
Afternoon sun bathed them in a golden glow, though the winter chill worried its way through Matt’s thin suit coat and dress slacks with annoying persistence. He rubbed his hands together and blew on them. A faint growl of thunder announced a storm cresting the northern horizon. A jagged line of lightning burned across the dark gray clouds.
“I’d rather face a firing squad,” Matt confessed. “And Gran’s been after me. Criticizing my hair, my clothes. Even my glasses are too ‘hipster’. At least she’s talking to me again, after my apparently unforgiveable sin of becoming a teacher instead of a doctor.”
“I know Gran kind of pushed you away, but what about the rest of us? We’ve missed you. I’ve missed you.” Renee paused and dropped her gaze to the slope of her belly. “Jim was laid off three months ago and things have been tough. You and Grandpa always knew what to say to make things right. But you practically disappeared. And now Grandpa.”
Matt flinched. When the Gran who used to cut his grilled cheeses into perfect triangles declared his chosen profession a waste, it had stung. But the constant, offhanded digs at him and decreasingly subtle cold shoulder had built a distance between them that made Matt feel like a hostile intruder at family functions. Eventually, he’d stopped coming. Renee was right; he had disappeared on her.
Renee put a hand on his shoulder. “Gran only wants the best for you. You should cut her a little slack. She just lost her anchor of over sixty years. To lose the person that’s been with you through everything, to have to handle that grief alone… Besides she wouldn’t have chosen you to give the speech if she didn’t think you’d do him proud.”
“I’m not so sure of that.” Matt pulled the slightly wrinkled print-out from his suit pocket. “She reduced my speech to a résumé of his accomplishments. There’s nothing about the man Grandpa was.”
Renee graciously allowed the change of subject. “Remember how he always hid our Christmas presents and made us follow clues to find them?”
Matt smiled. “I think he used that as an excuse to get us to do his chores.”
They chuckled and watched the brewing storm toss bursts of light back and forth across the sky.
“He had a unique way of putting things,” Matt said. “I remember he called each bolt of lightning a universe, born and extinguished in an instant, and thunder the cry of mourning. Although, get a few beers in him, then Grandpa swore up and down it was angels farting.”
Renee wiped her eyes and choked out a laugh. “Grandpa sure could wax poetic when the mood struck. You’re a lot like him, you know. You both love telling unusual stories.”
“Then maybe I’ll write a book of them.”
“You’d better.” Renee patted her belly. “This kid is going to need to know about his Great-Grandpa.”
Matt threw his arm over her shoulders in a hug. “Well, we’d better get inside before they send a search party.”
A loose nail made the lectern rock beneath Matt’s nervous grip as he stood on the church’s small stage beside his Grandpa’s gleaming coffin. The sea of somber faces stared expectantly at him. Waiting. He ran a sweaty hand through his hair and shoved his glasses up the bridge of his nose. His freshman literature classes averaged over three hundred students, and he’d never had so much as a butterfly until now.
Renee rubbed her belly, discreetly flashing him a thumbs-up sign. Farther down, seated primly between Matt’s father and Aunt Patrice, Gran dabbed her eyes with a lace hankie.
Matt looked at Gran’s version of his speech, then deliberately folded it and slipped it back into his pocket next to an old velvet earring box Grandpa had given him. Gran’s eyes widened behind her glasses and her hankie dropped forgotten to her lap. Her hand flew to the rose pendant she always wore for special occasions.
He cleared his throat and adjusted his tie. “Jeff Walters … my grandpa. He … um … Well, it’s hard to sum up a man. Impossible really. I mean, how can you encompass a person and their impact on the world in just a few words?
“We like closure. We like our laces tied, our ducks in a row, a pot of gold at the end of our rainbows. But the truth of the matter is that we’re not threads in some cosmic tapestry that can be neatly trimmed and tied off when our part is complete. We’re messy, wild, our influences unpredictable and often unintentional.
“ ‘We’re like lightning,’ Grandpa used to say. ‘Bright, loud, dangerous. Brief but beautiful bursts of raw energy streaking through the world. For good or evil, our very existence alters the universe. And that’s a damn big responsibility.’
“Which is exactly how Grandpa lived—though anyone who’s ever seen him tinkering with his tractor can attest to that loud and dangerous bit.” Matt grinned at the few bold enough to chuckle. “It’s no surprise that Grandpa chose lightning as his analogy for life. His passion for the phenomenon is local legend. I don’t think any of us will forget the Chicken Fiasco of ‘89.” More laughter, louder this time.
“Grandpa was a man who saw magic in the mundane and potential in the most ordinary people. But what most of you might not know is why. When I was eleven, Grandpa took me camping and fishing for a weekend, just me and him. While we were on the lake, a good twenty minutes from where we’d put in, a storm swept in out of nowhere. A big monster with lots of rain and wind and lightning. I’d never seen Grandpa so excited. Those steel gray eyes mirrored the darkened sky. He tossed our rods into the bottom of the boat, told me to get down by his feet, started the motor and turned us back to shore.
“We bumped across the choppy water. Those twenty minutes it would take to get back seemed more like twenty hours. I stared up into a black, boiling maw with white lightning fangs behind us and knew it was hunting me.
“Grandpa must have noticed my fear, because he put on his story-telling grin and said, ‘Awesome sight, ain’t it, boy? There’s a whole universe in there. In the lightning. That’s what lightning is. Whole other worlds that’re born, age and die in a split second. But they ain’t lost; no energy ever is. It just … changes. And who knows, maybe we’re just a flash of lightning in some other universe too.’
“ ‘Nuh-uh,’ I argued. ‘Lightning is just a bunch of static electricity. We learned that in school.’
“ ‘Hogwash! I’ve been there, Matt. Spent an hour in the city of lightning. Any of your teachers or your books ever do that?’
“I shook my head. Then Grandpa cleared his throat and told me this story:
It was late summer, hotter’n hell and air so thick you could wring it out. I was seventeen, workin’ the field for my Daddy, who’d been laid up by a kick from the mule. A storm blew in outta nowhere, a lot like this’un. I had just one more row to plow and decided to finish it out ‘fore heading back to the house.
There was a deafening roar. It was the sound of the world tearin’ apart, confusin’ the senses. Noise blinded, light deafened. I tasted ozone, smelled ‘lectricity. I could feel each’n every molecule of the air around me. I was livin’ so hard I was dyin’.
Matt paused. He had a bad habit of speaking too fast when nervous. A baby in the back whimpered, precursor to a full-on wail. Its mother tossed a diaper bag over her shoulder and eased her way to the end of her row, flashing an apologetic smile as everyone turned to watch her go. Once the pair left, Matt took a deep breath and went on, “Grandpa’s distraction was working. While I tried to figure out his metaphors, I couldn’t focus on the weather chasing our little boat across the lake. I said, ‘That doesn’t make sense, Grandpa.’
“His tone became grave, and he turned his steely eyes on me. ‘You’re a dreamer, boy. More like me than your old man.’ He touched a finger to my chest. ‘Keep lookin’ at the world with more’n your eyes, and one day you’ll understand.’
“I nodded, wide-eyed. Grandpa continued with his tale:
When I came to my senses, the field was gone. I was standin’, naked as a jaybird, in the middle of a crowded street. Like to died of embarrassment ‘fore I noticed that these weren’t the kind of folks you bump into down at the post office.
Their skin was a shiny black like that there volcano stuff, with pale flecks that sparkled in the purple sunlight. The texture was wrong, too, like they really was made of rock or glass. Their eyes was jewels. They didn’t have no noses and not a strand of hair.
Four long, skinny limbs like our arms an’ legs sprouted from short, stocky chests. Each hand only had four fingers, two of ‘em thumbs. They moved funny, kinda like overgrown chickens ‘cause their knee and elbow joints didn’t bend like mine.
The city itself…well, looked somethin’ like I’d imagine heaven to be. The buildings grew organic-like, more sculpture than architecture. Whatever material they used gave off white light that wiggled up into the violet sunlight like you see in them aurora things up north. I shaded my eyes from instinct more than pain—so much light shoulda blinded me, but I could see just fine.
A woman fell into step beside me. Don’t ask me how I knew it was a woman; I just did. I smiled and asked, “Don’t suppose you can tell me where I am?”
She brushed her fingertips ‘cross the back of my hand. And I knew, like findin’ a memory I’d forgot, that I was in Grown on Bay Rock, the capital of The Great Continent, the last settlement of the Children of the Third Sun. I was Visitor from Another Dimension and she wanted to know my name and the name of my Mother Sun.
“Name’s Jeff,” I told her. “From Texas. That’s in the United States. It’s a country on Earth.”
Again, I knew her question when her fingers touched mine. “Earth is your sun?”
I shook my head. “No, it’s my planet. The rock we live on.”
She smiled and bluish streaks zigzagged ‘cross her skin between them pale flecks, a thunderstorm in miniature. She touched a hand to her torso, then twined her fingers with mine. “I am One Who Comes Third and Brings Happiness. I study the possibility of multiple dimensions and travel between them. Visitor from Another Dimension Jeff, you are proof of my theory. What is your purpose here?”
“You are an inter-dimensional envoy, yes? A representative of the Children of your sun?”
“A researcher like myself, then? A scientist?”
I laughed and slapped my knee. ‘‘Whoo-boy, have you got the wrong idea, lady. I’m just a simple farmer. I can read, write and figure well enough, but I don’t know nothin’ about other dimensions.”
That odd skin-lightning returned, but this time it was more purple. “Then how did you come to be here, Visitor from Another Dimension Jeff?”
I shrugged. “Beats me. Best guess, my dang mule kicked me in the head and this is a dream.”
“You must come from a less advanced world. I had not considered that possibility.” Her skin flashed with mustard yellow streaks. I think she was a mite disappointed. “Well, if you dream, then let it be a good dream. Come, there is much to see before you wake.”
It was the strangest sight-seeing tour I’d ever been on. I walked gardens of natural stone, though it don’t seem right to call ‘em stones, because each was as unique and beautiful as a snowflake. Some towered strong and mighty as oaks, others swept along the path, delicate as honeysuckle bushes, or clustered in little bunches like flowers.
One Who Comes Third and Brings Happiness explained that each stone took generations of gardeners thousands of years to grow. The occasional fountain of inky water filled the air with a pleasant tinkling. I couldn’t smell a thing. Like walkin’ through a garden in full bloom with a head cold. I guess without noses, they didn’t have a sense of smell and didn’t need their gardens to smell nice.
She took me to an art museum. Alien landscapes hung beside Picasso-like portraits. Irregular lumps of stone outnumbered the art, though. No painting or designs. Just big, ugly boulders on display. My guide went and put her hands all over one of ‘em. Then she pulled me over and made me hug it, too. Now, I’ve never seen a museum that let you put your paws on the art, so I figured it had to be some kinda good luck charm. She explained that the artist’s work was inside, not outside, for me to feel.
That threw me ‘til I figured that if we had a sense of smell and they didn’t, then maybe they got senses we don’t. It embarrassed me, not bein’ able to see this thing she was clearly so proud of. I asked if she’d describe it to me, and she touched her hand to mine …
Matt paused to take a sip a from a convenient water bottle the funeral director had placed in the lectern. He was slipping into professor mode, a welcome reprieve from his previous nerves. His trained eye spotted a few people checking phones, but most were paying attention.
“Thunder clapped and the boat’s engine sputtered out. We’d finally reached the dock, jostled against it by the waves, but all my attention was on Grandpa. ‘What did you see, Grandpa? What was inside the rock?’
“He reached up and wiped his eyes. Rain poured down his face in tiny rivers, but for a second, I thought he might have been crying.
“ ‘I didn’t see nothin’. But what I felt …’ His voice faltered. ‘I just wish I could tell you, son. Imagine the very best day of your life stuck like a fly in amber, a perfect moment suspended for forever. And then do the same ten years later. It’s the same moment, but not the same moment. The way when you’re ten what you want most is a new bike, then ten years later it’s a new car, then maybe ten years later a new house. The same want, just a different object. It was like that, Matt.’
“We grabbed our gear and scrambled for the cover of our cabin porch. Grandpa fixed us each a mug of cocoa, then continued:
I followed One Who Comes Third and Brings Happiness until my dogs were barkin’. Remember, I’d already been plowin’ all day before getting zapped there. We saw their government and their churches to the Third Sun. We visited slums where coal-black bums, eyes milky and cracked, skin as dull and lifeless as real coal, huddled along the sidewalks.
She took me to the top of one of the towers. From the observation deck, I saw the city latticed below. Beyond, a pale, landscape, smooth as polished bone, curved around a harbor of inky water ‘til it blended with the indigo horizon. That swollen purple sun shattered into millions of glitterin’ shards against the sea. One Who Comes Third and Brings Happiness stood beside me, a melancholy green color sparkin’ across her black skin.
She touched her hand to mine. “Our world is dying, Visitor from Another Dimension Jeff. What you see here is the decaying carcass of a once-vibrant society.”
“But it’s beautiful,” I told her.
“Even Death has beauty after a fashion, but I would have you know our world as it once was.”
I don’t know how she did it, but suddenly I knew that place. I remembered its beginnin’ and its histories. I knew its days of innocence, its awkward adolescence, the spectacle of its maturity up to that very moment, when it hobbled along in its final glory, leanin’ on Death’s tender shoulder. Didn’t realize I was cryin’ ‘til I felt tears on my bare chest.
She touched my cheeks curiously and seemed to draw understandin’ from my tears like she done from my hand. “Do not mourn us, Visitor from Another Dimension Jeff. Remember us. Everything ends, as it must, or there would be nothing new in the universe. But nothing is truly lost. It merely changes.”
I think I fell in love with her a little, the way a boy falls a little in love with his kindergarten teacher, and I wanted to share somethin’ of my world. It dawned on me then that in the entire time I’d been there, I hadn’t seen so much as a leaf, a stick or a tuft of grass. So I grabbed her hand and tried to give her what I’d give any girl I wanted to impress—a flower. I thought about the most perfect blossom I’d ever laid eyes on. I thought about the satiny texture of the petals, the fragrance, the color, the shape, and the joy I’d felt after seein’ this result of my hard work.
When I opened my eyes, she had one hand pressed over her torso where I guessed her heart was and a steady pulsing rainbow of sparks washed across her black skin. Didn’t take much intuition to figure she was cryin’, too.
She extended her hand, a flat stone the size of a quarter gripped between both thumbs.
“Even if only as a dream, something of this place will endure. It has been a unique pleasure to spend this hour with you.”
Then she took my hand, nestled the stone onto my palm and folded my fingers closed over it, like a mama swaddlin’ her babe. I swallowed around a knot in my throat. I might not have been a scientist or explorer, but I was a farmer. And I knew exactly what to do with a seed.
Matt paused. The church was silent; even the sniffling had stopped. Most leaned forward in their seats, attentive; but some resembled the Math and Science majors in his freshman English class. He risked a look at Gran, expecting wrath. Instead, she clutched that rose so hard her knuckles went white, a hint of a smile on her face even as tears and snot dripped freely. She held his gaze, then deliberately mouthed, “Thank you.”
Maybe asking him to do the speech had been a kind of olive branch, and changing it was her way of pushing him to do exactly what he’d done: give a spontaneous, heartfelt tribute to the man they all loved. Tears burning his own eyes, Matt dipped his head to her in acceptance of this chance for reconciliation.
“Grandpa had been struck by lightning while working in the field. He came to with his mother wailing over him, but suffered nothing worse than a couple of minor burns. Now, the odds of being struck by lightning are better than your chances of ever meeting another man as wonderful as him. He might not have changed the world, but he changed the way a good number of us perceive it.”
Matt stuck his hand in his jacket pocket and grasped the velvet box. “A single story hardly feels adequate to fill the void left by Grandpa’s death, but we can take comfort in knowing that even if only as a story, something of him endures. That we are a lot like lightning. Our very existence alters the universe. And no one is truly lost when they’ve changed those left behind.”
The graveside service was unpleasantly chilly. A stiff afternoon breeze had kicked up and dropped the temperature close to freezing. Matt stood, huddled in his coat, between Bill the bait shop guy and Grandpa’s mechanic as he waited his turn to pay his last respects.
Renee waddled to his side, her chestnut curls bobbing and weaving drunkenly in the wind, a white rose clutched in her hand. “Now you definitely have to write that book. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Gran cry like that. I saw you two hug and make up earlier, too. Does that mean you’ll come to the family luncheon?”
She tried to play it casual, but Matt could tell by the way she bit her lip and picked at her fingernails that his answer really mattered to her. Things must have been worse than she’d let on before. He’d noticed her husband Jim’s absence. “Wouldn’t miss it,” he assured her. “We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”
Renee turned so he wouldn’t see her relief, so Matt pretended not to notice. Bill said a quick prayer over the coffin, then Matt and Renee were next. They stepped forward and Renee dropped the rose onto the lid. They shuffled on until they stood a short distance from the gathered mourners.
“So,” Renee spoke in a semi-whisper. “Did Grandpa really get struck by lightning?”
“Then that story, I mean, he had like brain damage or something, right?” Renee pressed. “A hallucination. Although knowing Grandpa, he might have just made the whole thing up.”
“I guess anything’s possible, but …” Matt pulled the box from his pocket and caressed the velvety exterior, the same as he’d done so many years ago out on that lake. “Grandpa told that story and passed this on to a frightened boy who was looking for reassurance in a storm. I think yours is a different kind of storm, but you’re scared and looking for reassurance, too.” He took Renee’s hand and planted the box firmly in her palm, folding her fingers over it.
She gazed up at him, her expression mildly puzzled, then lifted the lid. Matt couldn’t see the quarter-sized stone nestled inside from this angle, but he caught the rainbow reflection in Renee’s eyes as that mysterious light pulsed across the stone’s surface. Renee gasped and clutched the box to her chest. “Is this…? It isn’t just some story?”
“It’s a reminder. Even if only as a story, something of that place endures. Something of Grandpa endures.” With a conspiratorial wink, Matt gestured at her belly, leaned close to her ear and whispered, “And we will always be there to help you through the storm.”