90% of lightning strike victims survive.
—THE HANDBOOK FOR LIGHTNING STRIKE SURVIVORS
A fish . . .
She was a girl like you or like someone you knew-from a cracked home, a fault line between her parents, for which she felt responsible. A pretty girl with red hair: too curly to contain in barrettes or under headbands, twisting free, needing to spiral and curl like the ocean waves to her right.
The sun was hot, turning her back pink. She took great strides, walking faster, nearly running, her shadow mixed with the surf. Sanderlings scurrying to and fro mixed with her shadow. Except for the birds, she was alone with her thoughts, with hopes to caulk the crevice between her mother and father, the way she'd seen her mother do, wearing latex gloves, smoothing slow-drying putty around the bathtub's perimeter. How she set her highball on the tub's edge, digging out the old grout using a flat-head screwdriver. Mother was always drinking, and Dad was always working, but cracks can be mended so long as you let the caulk dry. They were here at the beach, weren't they? There was plenty of time to let that stuff dry. At home, Becca would mess it up, running the bathwater too soon, but here, she had hope. Here, she spotted a live fish with a fanlike tail, its gills opening and shutting, silver window blinds. Maybe the fish-on-the-sand happened to you or to someone you knew, but for Becca, it cemented her belief that anything is possible. She carried the fish through Atlantic surf, watching it swim away, running to tell her parents she had saved a life.
. . . out of water
Buckley loved everything about his mother, from the strawberry bumps on her legs where she dry- shaved with her Gillette to the way her black hair knotted at the nape of her neck. When the mean boys, the ones with fathers who taught them to fight before they could walk, jumped him from behind or from the front, Buckley counted himself a survivor. Knocked hard to the dirt, he got back up. It had everything to do with his mother. She was there for him, and he’d always be there for her. He could run fast.
It seemed that he was always running from someone stronger, bigger, and meaner— but not faster, and that was a very good thing. Today he was tired of running. The angry boys called, “Bastard!” That word didn’t touch him anymore. He’d heard it so often, it’d lost its meaning. He walked, hearing footsteps at his heels and falling to the dirt. Maybe he needed a beating. Covering his head with his hands, he felt the blows to his ribs and legs. Always protect the head. He breathed in the dirt.
Much later, when he was sixteen, he met Clementine. She smelled like dirt too. Like the earth. Like he could bury his face there between chin and collarbone and be protected. Maybe that’s why he loved her.
. . .
When the beating was over, the bullies toed dirt on Buckley’s backside and touted, “Crybaby.” As they left, he struggled to his feet.
The thing was, he didn’t cry. Not then. Hardly ever. They could’ve kicked and punched until his ribs cracked and his lip split. It didn’t make a difference. He wouldn’t have cried for them. Maybe that was part of what was wrong with him. He was eleven years old, unable to cry, trying not to run from the world.
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The wind shifted and Becca stopped running. Her dad was taking her for a chocolate-dipped soft serve, but first she needed a bath. He wouldn't be seen with her this way. Her knee, bloody from tripping over a knobby root during hide-and-seek, had that sticky-tight feeling, and the other knee, scraped from tumbling on the sidewalk, burned. She needed to be more careful. How many times had her dad told her "Stop picking those scabs or you will scar, and scars last forever"?
The wind picked up-a rare cold wind. From her driveway, she watched the willow tree's branches, like charm-laden arms, sway back and forth, and thought about her ice cream, about her dad. She thought about the summer's end, another boring school year about to begin, about the dried blood caked on her knee-and her world exploded. It cracked open and Becca fell inside a whiteness that erased everything: the driveway, the tree, the long summer's day, the blood, the ice cream. For a time, the world was blank. She was still.
She woke up, her fingertips tingling, her head full of static, raindrops only now wetting her legs. She knew she'd been struck by lightning. There was never a question. She stood up, feeling peculiar, seeing herself from a distance as someone else might: wild hair, freckled nose, pink lips, pony T-shirt, corduroy shorts and gray sneakers; gangly arms and legs.
She hobbled inside to the den. With blood trickling down her shin, her voice shaky, she said, "Dad, I got struck by lightning."
He sat on the sofa. "If you got struck by lightning, you'd be dead." He didn't look up.
The den's gold drapes were parted. The sky was black. Becca shivered, waiting for her dad to say something more like We need to get you to the hospital! or Oh my God! I'll call an ambulance!, but instead he picked up Yachting Today. He was in love with sailing then. He was in love with all things that required large sums of money, and Becca was in love with him.
Becca said, "It knocked me down."
"Who knocked you down? Did you knock them down first?" He looked at her then. Finally.
The rain streaked the front window. She said, "I think I got struck by lightning."
"Well, you seem fine now." He was used to seeing her bloodied and bruised. Like her mother, she lacked balance. "Get cleaned up." He returned to his magazine.
Upstairs, she undressed, leaving the bathroom door open. She looked at her watch before stepping in the tub. The hands had stopped at five-fourteen. That must've been when the lightning struck. Or, maybe Dad is right: Who gets struck by lightning and walks away? She knew the answer: Me. I do.
In the bathtub, with her big toe up the spigot, the water turned gray. Becca smelled bleach. She was trembling again. Shutting off the cold, she turned up the hot. She closed her eyes and took deep breaths to stop from shaking. She imagined hovering, twirling in the sky, shooting lightning bolts from her fingertips like a gunslinger before dropping, landing cold and wet in the driveway. She opened her eyes and felt sick. Her hands and feet ached. She used to ask her mother, "How can I turn off my imagination?" Back then, she didn't pronounce the i, saying, "'magination" instead. It was back then that she'd started painting, to give her "'magination" something to do. Maybe the prickling in her feet and the headache were imagination. Maybe she'd bumped her head falling down somewhere earlier today but didn't remember. More deep breaths. Her mother, who took smoke-filled breaths, said that deep breaths calmed the nerves. Becca, taking the deepest breaths possible, felt light-headed. She pulled the tub's stopper.
Looking at herself in the mirror, she decided to curb the breathing. She was pale. She might pass out, and she'd been through enough today.
Downstairs, she toweled her hair and waited for her dad to get off the phone. He said, "I'll be there," smiling at Becca, holding up his pointer finger to indicate Be with you in a second. He often held up his pointer finger. Sometimes when he wanted Becca to do something like fold laundry, he'd look at her and point to the full basket. He was a man of few words. Into the phone he said, "I told you: I'll be there."
Becca, having waited patiently, said, "I'm ready."
Covering the mouthpiece, he said, "Ready for what?"
"Ice cream. We're supposed to-"
He didn't let her finish. "Sorry. Another night." Returning to his phone conversation, he said, "I won't be later than eight."
Becca pulled the towel from her head and dropped it on the kitchen floor. She went upstairs to her room to paint a picture of a girl getting struck by lightning. She was certain that her father was in the kitchen pointing at the wet towel and waiting for someone to pick it up. Later, when he'd gone, she'd come back downstairs and the towel would still be there. It wasn't his responsibility to clean up after them.
The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors
An estimated 80% of people struck by lightning are men. This is not, as you might think, because men are too stubborn to come in out of the rain; rather, it's because men tend to engage in outdoor sports and professions more than women.
Regardless of a victim's gender, doctors and scientists concur that the surviving victim needs support from family and friends to recover.
Immediate effects include cardiac arrest and brain damage. Chronic effects include anxiety disorders, memory loss, stiff joints, numbness, and insomnia. For years following a strike, the victim might feel tingling throughout his body. Because it's often difficult for a victim to describe what happened, it's important that there is a support group to listen.