The green dragon jumped into a rusty sky.
“Happy Birthday, Beth,” Ethan said, shielding his eyes from the searing afternoon sun.
“It’s wonderful. The crown jewel of my collection. Where’d you get a Tibetan festival kite?” His wife grinned as she let out more twine. The four-foot dragon kite soared even in the light breeze, its silk shimmering in the light.
“Friends with the Dalai Lama.”
She turned and gave him a withering look, then pursed her lips into a kiss. “What a great way to celebrate my senior citizenship.”
“Honey, you’re only thirty-four.”
“Thirty-four is the new sixty.” She wiggled her hips at him.
“You’re a nut.” He grinned at the leggy, tawny-haired woman whom he still couldn’t believe had married him. She bounced like a cheerleader as the dragon rose higher into the sky. In her blue T-shirt and cut-off jeans she still looked like a schoolgirl. “Can it do tricks?” he said.
“Not this kind of kite.”
“I want tricks.”
Beth turned and winked. “Later you’ll get tricks.”
Ethan sat cross-legged in the tall grass a dozen feet behind Beth, the breeze tossing his dark hair into his eyes. His foxhound, Buzz, leaned against Ethan’s thigh and poked his cold nose into his pack leader’s right ear, a signal that his own ears needed rubbing.
From the hilltop, Ethan gazed across the valley. A blue haze of humidity rose off the fields and almost obscured his farmhouse in the distance. His family had prospered here in for seven generations.
He wiped sweat off his forehead and noticed that Beth’s legs and arms sparkled as if covered with tiny gems. “Beth, we should have done this in the morning. We’re sweating like pigs.”
“Lover, women do not sweat. We glisten. Only men sweat. Filthy beasts.”
Suddenly, Ethan’s guts felt like he’d swallowed a bag of ice cubes. His sight blurred and thunder boomed in his head. He glanced at Beth. She didn’t hear it. Buzz hadn’t moved.
No, this is something only I see.
I’ve always hated lightning.
He bit the insides of his cheeks until he tasted blood, panic ripping through him like a fever. He fought for control as he got to his feet.
“Beth, we need to get off this hill.”
She turned and frowned, one hand holding the twine, the other on her hip. “We just got here.”
Her gaze shifted to something above and behind Ethan and her brows rose. Ethan turned to see a dark cauldron of clouds bubbling up from the valley. The humid breeze turned to cold wind and the kite line almost wrenched out of ’s grasp.
“Honey, let’s get that kite down.” As if to punctuate Ethan’s words, a silver ribbon sizzled across the southwestern sky. Thunder boomed nine seconds later. “Less than two miles away. Let’s hustle.”
Ethan began pulling in the kite line.
Beth grabbed what looked like miniature ladders off the ground and spooled twine onto them, but couldn’t keep up with Ethan. In less than a minute, he had the kite in hand. Seeing Beth trying to spool the string, he yelled, “Forget that.” He pulled a pocket knife from his jeans and sliced the line. “Let’s go,” he said as goose bumps rose on his skin.
The kite yanked and twisted like a wild falcon tied to his wrist, but he held on. As they double-timed it to the floor of the valley, fat raindrops slapped the ground, falling so wide apart it seemed possible to avoid them. The race with the storm lasted another minute before the sky darkened as if a hand snuffed out the sun. Charcoal clouds disgorged a frigid deluge.
They broke into a trot, Beth laughing and shrieking as thunder ripped overhead. Delay no longer separated the flashes and the booms. A hundred yards ahead, their red barn loomed out of the downpour. Despite his longer legs, Ethan fell behind as nettles of pain blossomed in his knees, another reminder of the toll college hockey had taken on his body. In contrast, his wife bounded over the corn stubble like a fawn.
Beth turned and, running backwards, slowed enough to let Ethan catch up. She shouted, “You wanted tricks? Try to find me in the hay loft. I’ll be the naked one.”
“Go. I’ll catch up,” he shouted.
Beth pulled ahead, sprinting toward the shelter of the barn. Ethan slowed to a walk. His knees hurt too much to run. The rain pounded down with such volume that the field was rapidly turning to mud.
A hundred feet away, trotted toward an ancient dead oak that stuck out of the field like a pale withered hand.
A million tiny worms crept into Ethan’s scalp and crawled down his neck. Adrenaline squirted through his system. He screamed, “Beth! GET DOWN!” The wind ripped his words away as easily as it snatched the kite from his hand.
Lightning strobed high above, throwing the landscape into a series of snapshots. Beth in mid-stride. Beth nearing the oak.
Ethan ran though his knees felt like fire, each step now requiring the added effort of pulling free of mud that sucked at his shoes. Between thunderclaps, he yelled, “BETH!”
This time she heard him and turned, just under the oak.
He watched in horror as a faint spidery tendril of light wavered from the highest branch of the dead oak and wound its way into the sky.
“BETH, GET DOWN!”
She looked like a bewildered child as she stared at Ethan and cupped her hands behind her ears to hear him better.
Sound Dopplered down the spectrum and time stretched out for Ethan. Everything around him moved, in flux, but he seemed slowed as if in quicksand.
The spider of energy thickened and whipped above the tree, searching, searching.
Ethan pointed above Beth, trying to get her to see the danger. His knees screamed as he closed the distance. He had to reach her, tackle her. Couldn’t she feel the charge building?
She finally looked up. Ethan saw fear in a face that seemed so pale against the darkness. She dropped to her knees, then flattened into the mud.
Not even knowing it, Ethan whispered, “Not now, God, no.” He drove himself forward, each step a distinct battle. He blinked madly to see through the wind-lashed water that hammered like buckshot against his face.
Thunder crashed at such a low frequency that Ethan’s stomach vibrated. He looked up at the oak.
The bright feeder tendril fattened and reached higher into the sky.
Until it made its connection. “No, no, no…”
A searing rope of light blazed from the top of the bleached oak and whipped upward, coiling and writhing, a coruscant, crackling, living thing of purest silver. Smaller ropes arced across the ground from the tree to the barn. With the tree at its center, a translucent blue ball of energy ballooned outward, sizzling like bacon on a hot skillet. Bigger it stretched, engulfing Beth. When the glowing ball expanded to the barn, it suddenly collapsed and the tree exploded like a grenade, hurling wood shrapnel in every direction. In that last moment, Ethan saw Beth’s prone silhouette etched against the flash. Then the splinters hit him and he fell into the mud in a ball.
Momentarily blinded, Ethan peered through the rain until his vision returned enough to see that the old tree had vanished. Flames engulfed the barn.
Time spun back up to normal as Ethan struggled to his feet, his knees feeling like broken glass. Blood oozed from his forehead and scalp and arms. Hundreds of splinters protruded from his bare skin. He ignored the pain and the taste of blood in his mouth. Barely able to make headway against the lashing wind, he limped toward where he had last seen Beth. The earth lay fused into a glassy strip of hot blackness that hissed and spat in the rain. Buzz trotted up to it, sniffed, and then ran for the house as if wolves were chasing him.
Ethan dropped to his knees, then lay flat, his face only inches above the steaming glass. No trace of remained. Could lightning vaporize someone?
Despite the wind, Ethan smelled a chary, ugly stench. He rolled to his right and vomited in the mud.
A sound in the wind caught Ethan’s attention. Moaning? Beth?
He realized the sound came out of his own throat, the sub-vocal plea of a wounded animal.
He had felt it coming.
He should have known.
He collapsed into the cold mud and tried to hate himself into oblivion.