2016 Winner: ONLY STORMS by Miranda Sun
Today, the weather is perfect. Thunder roars in her ears, and wicked lightning streaks down from the heavens. The skies are steel gray, wild and savage. Clouds rumble their displeasure, letting loose a day’s misgivings. Nature’s theater is having a play, one intensified a thousand times more than normal. Sound check has failed, and the blinding spotlights irradiate the stage with their presence and plunge it into darkness with their absence.
She sits on a cliff over the heaving ocean and watches the first act. All the while, the wind tugs at her dress, drags its fingers through her hair. The sharp smell of ozone fills her nostrils. She ignores these distractions as best as she can. Every so often, she takes bites from an egg salad sandwich. Occasionally she sips lemon-lime soda, although the carbonation leaves a bad taste in her mouth. These choices are not hers. Neither is the weather.
But the surroundings are.
She came here a hundred times with him. This was their favorite picnic spot, a grassy area almost a thousand feet above the waves. She isn’t afraid of heights, which is helpful, considering where she currently sits. In fact, she might even be a little too unafraid for her own good.
The first time they’d come here, she’d tried to peek over the edge.
He’d yanked her back immediately, telling her that if she fell, her chance of survival was zero. A little hypocritical, considering his occupation, but she’d listened to him anyway.
He had been a lightning photographer, spent his whole life chasing storms. He was constantly checking the clouds, wondering. His neck was craned up towards the sky more often than not. If there was the slightest possibility of lightning, he’d be there. But even though he was always on the move, he always made time for her, for their little picnics where he would eat egg salad sandwiches and drink lemon-lime soda and proudly present his photographs.
She remembers how he once told her, cheeks flushed, that the first time he saw her he couldn’t help but think that he’d found the perfect storm.
And then, a storm had found him.
Only a fraction of the lightning strike would have been enough to kill. He might have had only a fraction of a second’s warning. Had he tried to prepare himself, or had he been too preoccupied with the camera? She thinks about this constantly, thinks that maybe if she’d been there….
No, she wouldn’t have been. She hates lightning.
One out of ten don’t make it, she’s heard. Who were the other nine who took away his chance?
That doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t stop her from thinking it, though.
She should have said something sooner. Should have, could have, would have…except for fear of hurting him, of causing a fight that would forever take him away from her.
And now she’ll never see him again.
This morning she’d crashed. Running late on hastily brewed coffee, her mind had been bleary and her self-control almost all gone. When the other car came into view at the crossway—a dark red van that had slowed as soon as the driver saw the imminent collision—she had slammed on her brakes instantly, a thoughtless act of self-preservation. And then, she’d had an idea.
What if I let go?
For a second, she’d lifted up her foot, felt the car drift out of control. Then reason struck, made her press down again. Her body shuddered under adrenaline and swayed under inertia as the vehicles collided.
Though she’d had the right of way, she hadn’t pressed charges. Why make another life more complicated? She has no desire to do that. She is not a storm. She is a human being, one who carries her every mistake on her body like Lichtenberg figures. Unlike him, she has been lucky enough to have survived her lightning strikes.
All this remembering makes her feel heavy, as if weights are tied to her limbs. Would she feel light, she wonders, falling through the air? Gravity has its limits.
So does she.
The sky crackles, forks arcing down to the waiting water. Electricity hisses through the air and makes the hair on her arms stand up. Not a good sign, that much she knows. Perhaps this is a dare, a challenge from Thor or Zeus or whatever god the skies believe in. She stands up, abandoning her half-eaten sandwich on the ground.
With ponderous, iron-weighted steps, she walks to the edge. It’s a long way down, but it doesn’t look as bad as she’d imagined. She would only spend some seconds in the air before striking the water; she can feel the air whistling in her ears already, a cheerful, welcoming tune. Her breaths come fast and shaky, but she does not feel afraid. Vertigo seizes her immediately, but terror does not arrive.
Step back, she hears him telling her. Step back, it’s not safe. And for the first time in her life, she doesn’t listen. People have jumped from here before. She found that out after he died. She continues to gaze at the undulating water below, a dark blue guilt that aches to claim her. A simple step is all that’s needed. A quick lift of the foot that will never find purchase on earth again. She can end this, here.
Instead, she opens her mouth and screams.
Of course, nothing can upstage the thunder’s lungs, but she tries anyway. She curses the storm, unleashes her pain and sorrow and ozone heartbreak over the swirling dark water. How does one wage a war on nature? How does one find justice for the loss of a loved one? She does not know. She can only howl her grief into the wind, allow it to take her words back to the clouds where they’ll form as raindrops. Let the sky hear her pain, let it send her charged anger down to the earth to ground it.
She is a lightning strike.
At last, her throat is raw, as if her words had been shattered shards of glass. She takes a breath to feel the oxygen burning in her lungs, so she knows she’s still alive. Balanced on the edge of a precipice, she looks up at the heavens, gazes at the beautiful, deadly lightning, and whispers to him, “I hope you’re happy with the storms you chased.” She hopes that wherever he is, he can hear her.
Sitting back down, she watches the tempest fade away. Rain is falling, now. She might be crying, but that will pass.
All storms do.