The October sun beat unseasonably hot on Ethan’s shoulders as he pulled up the yellow tape the police had staked around the remains of the old oak. A crime scene? He felt like strangling one of the stupid bastards who’d kept him away for a week as they poked around the spot where Beth had disappeared. When they finally accepted that Ethan hadn’t killed his wife, they lost interest. Now he was free to do the only thing he could think of. He pushed a spade deep into the coffee-colored earth, heaved aside the damp loam. Again and again. It felt like digging a grave, except his purpose was not to bury something. Just the opposite. Soon sweat dropped from the end of his narrow nose in a steady rhythm that matched his movements.
His scalp and forehead itched from hundreds of tiny scabs left by the splinters. He stopped digging and ripped sweat-soaked bandages off his arms and let the sun beat on the swollen skin. A week after the storm, the pain of his wounds had barely diminished. The infected areas throbbed in the heat of the sun. What did pain matter? He deserved this pain and more.
It took an hour to clear surface soil and dig around the dark nightmare. Where the lightning bolt had struck Beth, the ground had fused into black and brown glass with a hollow center that corkscrewed down at an angle into the earth. Uncovered, this last evidence of his wife’s existence stretched over five feet long and a foot wide, a twisted mass of silica and carbon, the result of over six thousand degrees of heat.
A piece of the sun.
Ethan ran his fingers along the convoluted curves, some smooth as Steuben glass, others rough and textured like charcoal.
Ethan attacked the glass. With each powerful arc of the twenty-pound sledge, he smashed the glazed artifact into chunks, then fragments. Then, like a prospector, he sifted through the pile of shards and dust for some hint of his wife.
After an hour of sifting, Ethan sat in the grass and stared at the shattered remnants of an energy beyond his comprehension. Not a bone nor a button had been captured in the thing. No wedding ring had fused inside its translucent mass. It was as if Beth had never existed. Could lightning do such a thing?
His eyes drifted to the bright sky but they saw nothing except his own guilt etched in the clouds. It crushed down on him with a weight that made him lightheaded.
Sitting here on this spot where she had left the earth, Ethan felt some faint energy, some remnant of her thoughts. His mind flashed the image of her pale face, so terrorized in those last instants.
He should have sensed the storm earlier. He should never have taken Beth up that hill. A life of hiding had dulled him to the clear signals of danger.
Deep inside, I knew. Why didn’t I understand?
Why did he hide? He was no longer a child. But his training ran deep. His mother had seen to that.
He had thought he would find closure by digging up the glass artifact, but instead he felt only turmoil. His forty years of life seemed wasted, withered. What good were his skills if he didn’t use them?
And now using them didn’t matter.
When Ethan had started digging, Buzz sniffed at the black glass, but wrinkled his nose and settled in the grass ten feet away. Now, sensing Ethan’s turmoil, the dog sidled up to his sitting master and poked his snout into Ethan’s ear, delivering a two-lick kiss.
Ethan scratched the top of Buzz’s head, then gathered his shovel and sledgehammer and trudged back to the barn. The sun’s heat did nothing to warm his soul.