Lightning: a short story

A harvester hacks at sugar cane, eating away in precise rows. The highway is a fine line through the countryside.

He clutches the wheel. She stares out the open window.

He takes a breath to speak again. Clenches his jaw. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘Hmm?’

‘Sorry. That it turned out the way it did.’

‘Not your fault.’

‘It’s wrong. It was wrong, the way they treated you. Like you were the one that… God.’

‘That’s just how it works, I guess.’

‘Doesn’t f**king work for me. I mean, what, they’re just gonna let him off? But they put you up there. Ask you all that shit, in front of everyone… How is that justice?’

She stares at a mass of cloud forming on the horizon.

‘We’ve been through enough,’ he says. ‘It’s not fair.’

A storm is rolling in. She winds up the window.

12

He stares at the television. She’s at the dinner table, tapping a pencil against a small leather-bound notebook.

A knock on the door.

He leaps to his feet. ‘I’ll get that.’

She watches as he puts his eye to the peephole.

‘Go upstairs,’ he says. ‘Go upstairs now.’

‘Who is it?’

‘His brother. The other Walden boy, the one in the public gallery yesterday. Go upstairs.’

‘Connor?’

‘Just let me handle this, okay?’

She leaves. He pushes out a breath, a sharp gust between his teeth, and opens the door.

3

From her room, her father’s voice is muffled. Rising and falling.

She tears strips from the notebook.

Finally, footsteps on the staircase. He walks in, sits on the end of the bed.

‘It’s okay. I sent him away.’

‘What did he want?’

‘I don’t know. I told him not to come back.’

‘He was my friend, you know. Before.’

He frowns. ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea. Not anymore.’

‘What, being friendly?’

‘You don’t need to be friendly. Not to them.’

‘It’s not like they all did it. Look, can we not talk about it anymore? I just want to forget.’

‘How could you possibly forget, with him hanging around? I can barely tell those boys apart, for Chrissake.’

‘Okay. Then I just want to feel normal. That too much to ask?’

He sighs, pushing a hand through his hair. ‘Wait, what have you done to your grandfather’s journal?’

She shrugs.

‘He left that to you to record the weather, not to destroy it.’ He gathers up the strips of paper from the bedspread.

‘Hey,’ she says, ‘I’m using those. No, don’t read them!’

He grunts in frustration and throws the fragments back. She watches as they fall, whirling to the floor.

4

The hardware store is the largest establishment on the main street.

They pull up; father and daughter slide out of the Pajero.

In movements practised to instinct, they look right. Look left. Look right, as they cross the road.

Some things will never change.

A bell rings as they enter. Blink away the midday sun. It’s quiet, just three people leaning against the counter. All three glance to the door, words falling away.

Two wear the uniforms of employees. The third is a middle-aged woman wearing jeans and a cold countenance.

For one moment, everyone is frozen. The woman’s expression is ice. The father strides behind the shelves. The daughter is his shadow. She whispers, ‘God, why did it have to be her?’

‘Why are you hiding?’ he says.

She shakes her head, crouching to inspect paintbrushes. ‘She still thinks I’m a scheming slut, and her son’s the victim.’

The woman at the counter is speaking again. Clearly. She leans towards the employees, but her eyes are to the back of the store. ‘Well. She might have ruined Chris’ reputation, but the courts came through in the end.’

The attendants murmur quiet agreement. ‘No proof at all! Her word against his.’

The father mutters, ‘This is so wrong.’

‘She’s won,’ his daughter replies.

‘Fucking wrong.’

She says nothing.

‘Go. Wait in the car.’

‘Dad…’

‘It’s okay. Go on.’

She nods. Three deep breaths. Straightening, she darts out of the shelves.

For three seconds, from shelf to exit, she is exposed. Alone.

She opens the door. The bell rings. Cringing, she glances back to the counter.

The woman is smirking.

5

In the car, she tugs the notebook from the pocket of her jeans. There’s a pen in the glove box.

The father is visible through the glass front of the store. He heaves a bag of fertilizer over his shoulder, tin of paint in his free hand.

Head down, she scribbles in her notebook. She does not see as a figure rounds the corner and stops, squinting in her direction. Glancing up and down the street, he approaches the car, hesitates by the open window. A breath, then—

‘Ginny.’

Starting at the sound of his voice, her pen jerks across the page. She stares up at him, her face turning red.

‘Sorry,’ he says.

‘Connor. Hi.’

‘Look, I…’ A pause.

‘Dad’ll be back in a minute—’

‘I’m sorry. For everything. For not being there to stop Chris that night. And for being a prick these last months.’

‘Why are you talking to me?’

‘I was giving Mum a lift to the hardware…’ He glances across the street. His mother glares out of the shop window. ‘Oh. Shit. Did she speak to you?’

‘Kind of. But why do you keep coming around?’

He shrugs. ‘Just… sucks that he got off.’

‘You’re family. Aren’t you supposed to support him?’

‘I think you could use it more than he does.’

Only silence, for a time.

He squints at the sun. Asks, ‘What are you gonna do?’

‘What?’

‘You’ve been living at home, what, a year? You gonna leave for uni? Work? Or stay?’

‘I think I should stick with Dad. We might leave town.’

‘But what do you want to be?’

‘Normal. Invisible.’

6

She lies asleep against a fallen tree.

The heavens are streaked with mare’s tails and mackerel scales. Smudges of shadow drift across the paddock.

She wakes slowly, watches the clouds pass for a time. She pushes herself to her feet. Squints at the sun.

An afternoon storm rumbles in the distance as she makes her way across the property. A light drizzle begins to fall. None of these fields hold any livestock anymore.

Her forehead tightens as she sights the Pajero, parked alongside the house. She hurries up the back stairs. Unlocks the back door.

He’s at the table with a bottle of bourbon, the clean glass abandoned on the bench. ‘You’re home early?’

‘I needed to talk to you.’

She says nothing.

‘Your mother called me.’

She stays silent. A twitch of the head, maybe. A slight tightening of neck muscles.

‘She’s in Sydney. All this time, she’s been in Sydney. And she knew, about you. About what happened.’

Eyes to the floor, she nods.

‘Have you been talking to her?’

‘No.’

‘Look at me. Look at me. Have you talked to your mother?’

‘Only… only once.’

He stands, unsteady, his face burning red. ‘When?’

‘Few weeks ago.’

‘And you never told me. Fuck, she could have been dead, for all I knew!’

She mumbles something, voice breaking.

‘What?’

‘She was just scared.’

‘Yeah? Well, she’s coming down next week, she said. Says she’s settled in Sydney. I’m not an idiot, I know what that means.’

‘Dad—’

‘If she asks, and I bet my life she will, you’d go off and live with her, wouldn’t you?’

‘I—’

‘She abandoned us. She left, not even a fucking note, and you’ll still side with her. You two always played the weaklings, and I was the drunken bastard, is that right? But I’m still here. I’ve looked after you, put you through school. I protected you, didn’t I?’

At this, her head jerks back, a bark of laughter bursting from her. ‘Seriously?’

He tries to answer. Takes a breath, releases, shoulders slumping. Sinks back down into the chair, hand to brow. Sighs, ‘I don’t—’

Someone knocks on the door.

Her eyes go wide. He lurches back to his feet.

‘It’s okay, I got it,’ she says, darting into the hallway. She doesn’t stop to check the peephole, just slips out the door, shutting it behind her.

Outside, on the veranda, Connor Walden blinks the rain out of his eyes. She presses a finger to her lips. ‘Sorry. You have to go,’ she whispers.

‘Everything okay?’

‘Dad came home early.’

‘Oh. Want me to come back tomorrow?’

‘Yes! Go!’

But the front door is bursting open, the father storming out. ‘I told you to stay the fuck away, Walden!’

The younger man takes two paces back. ‘I’m sorry, I just—’

‘Leave us alone!’

‘Dad, it’s okay,’ she says. ‘I told him to come.’

He stares. Shoves a hand through his hair. ‘While I was at work. Behind my back.’

‘I’m sorry, okay? I knew you’d be mad.’

‘Why would you do this?’

‘Hey, it’s not a big deal! I can make my own choices.’

‘What, because that’s worked so well in the past? You say I can’t protect you? Whose fault is that? Who was out drunk, in the park, in the middle of the night? And now his brother’s coming around, and you’re making fucking doe eyes at him!’

‘Dad!’

‘You know what? This is messed up. It’s messed up.’

Silence.

Connor steps forward again. Hesitates. ‘Hey, look. I’m not my brother. And it was horrible, what happened. I just wanted to help.’

‘Don’t need your fucking help, Walden. Leave. Now.’

‘I really don’t think it’s your—’

‘Leave us alone!’ A stumbling step, a shove—palms against chest, shoulder collides with shoulder. Shins tangle, knees collapse. A hopeless grab at the air, too late.

The boy glances off the railing and falls to his side. There is skin off his palms. He staggers to his feet, his knee starting to bleed.

Lightning strikes. For a fraction of a second, the veranda is ablaze in white light.

Legs askew, eyelids fluttering, the girl lies on the bottom step.

The father lurches down the stairs. ‘Fuck. Oh God.’ He takes her hand, her shoulder, tries to pull her up.

She turns her head, heaves vomit onto the garden path.

Connor says, ‘Where’s your phone?’

No reply.

‘Oi! Where’s your phone? That’s a concussion, you gotta keep her awake!’

‘Kitchen.’ His head is buried in her hair, shoulders shuddering.

‘I’m calling an ambulance,’ Connor says, running inside.

The lightning has passed, now the thunder rolls across the landscape. Echoes off the hills. The rain is still falling.

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