EYES OF LIGHTNING
Copyright 2012 by Erin Keyser Horn
I felt the storm coming long before I saw the clouds.
Inside the gas station I sat in a grubby booth, my fingers drumming on the greasy tabletop, my knees jittering underneath. I’d been antsy for a while—running away from home had that effect on me—but after seeing the first lightning bolt, now I felt downright twitchy.
I’d come so far, and so close to where I needed to be. After a Greyhound ride to Chicago, a middle-of-the-night layover at the station, and then four more stops as the bus crawled west, I was finally in Galena, Illinois. Five miles from my destination.
Five miles wasn’t the problem. I had a map, and walking through a storm was the perfect way to burn energy. The problem was—I didn’t know what to expect once I got there. If the situation turned into a minefield, strolling off the property would be a lousy escape plan.
I thought about calling a cab so it was ready and waiting if I needed it. But then I might not have enough money for a bus ticket home. Would there be any cars on the country road for me to flag down? Did people even pick up hitchhikers anymore? I wasn’t a serial killer, but with my luck I’d get in a car with one.
Groaning, I dropped my head into my hands. I’d hardly slept on the bus or at the station, and exhaustion clawed at my brain. In my careful plotting to travel three hundred miles, I hadn’t let myself consider all that could go wrong. It was typical of me to wait ‘til the last minute to reconsider.
“Are you okay?” a boy asked.
The words seemed distant, meant for someone else. Then I felt a slight touch on my shoulder. Startled, I looked up.
The boy touching me quickly dropped his hand. “Sorry,” he said with a sheepish grin. “Didn’t mean to sneak-attack.”
No words came out of my mouth. Maybe because of my tired and stressed condition. Or maybe because of the boy—the way his clipped accent used “sneak-attack” like a real verb. Or how his cinnamon-colored hair swooped close to his hazel eyes. Or how he could smile so easily and warmly at a stranger.
“Hungry?” he asked, pulling a bag of M&Ms out of his pocket and offering me a hit.
I shook my head, nonplussed by this anomaly of a boy. He looked too skinny to have a candy addiction.
He gestured at the booth seat across from me. “May I?”
Guys never flirted with me, so this boy’s parents must’ve raised him with exceptional manners. I didn’t want company—I needed to figure out my plan—but the boy took my silence as acquiescence and slid into the seat.
“So,” he said cheerfully, as if we were old friends, “what’s wrong?”
I was wearing tinted glasses to hide my eyes, so I assumed he couldn’t read my expression. If he could, he’d realize he was weirding me out.
Perhaps he could read me, because he leaned forward with a somewhat more serious expression on his face. The freckles on his nose made it hard to take him seriously. “Look, it’s none of my business. But you’re obviously in some kind of trouble. I’d be happy to help.”
The thought was absurd. Ask a strange boy for help? I couldn’t trust him. Maybe he used his chocolate and innocent face to lure girls into his vehicle and drive them to the middle of nowhere to . . . whatever. He was maybe fourteen, if that, so he couldn’t have a driver’s license. He wore a Sanctus Real t-shirt and a hopeful smile, like I might help him, instead of the other way around.
Gram was always saying that God sends us angels in unexpected ways. She might’ve said this boy was an angel ready to help me in my hour of need. I didn’t really believe that, but I couldn’t lose the chance due to simple distrust.
“Do—” My voice cracked from neglect, and I had to clear my throat and start over. “Do you know Walter Nimiki?” Galena was ten times the size of my hometown, so I had no hope of the boy knowing an old man who lived in the country.
Luckily I still wore the tinted glasses, or else the boy’s grin might’ve blinded me. “Sure,” he said. “Everyone around here knows Walter.”
I blinked. That answer hadn’t even crossed my mind as a possibility. “Um, okay.” A million questions raced to be first, but all were too personal if I wanted to keep up my act. So I settled for the lamest one. “Is he . . . a nice guy?”
The boy nodded with confidence. “One of the nicest.”
Part of me relaxed. I decided to try out the story I’d fabricated. “I’m writing a school paper about Nimiki Bluff, and I was hoping to interview Walter. Do you think he’d mind?”
“Walter loves talking about the bluff,” the boy assured me. “You’ll probably learn more than you ever wanted to.”
It seemed the boy was very familiar with both Walter and Nimiki Bluff. This made me curious, but I’d wasted enough time in the gas station. I leaned down to scoop my backpack off the floor. “Thank you for your help. I should go before the rain starts.” I said this to sound like a normal person. Honestly, I couldn’t wait for the rain to start.
“You can’t walk in the storm,” the boy exclaimed. He stood quickly, and again I had the sensation of being light years behind him. “We can give you a ride.”
Not knowing who the “we” entailed, I was weirded out again. “I don’t even know who you are,” I blurted.
He looked appalled by his slip in etiquette. “I’m sorry, I should’ve introduced myself. I’m Caleb Drysdale, but my friends call me Cal.” He extended his hand—this time it was candy-free. I stared at it for a moment, my mind reeling. Was I supposed to call him Caleb or Cal? Did knowing his name imply that I knew him? Did he really want to shake my hand as if we were forty years old?
Slowly, I took Cal’s hand. The rightness of it amazed me. As if the life lines on our palms somehow connected, turning dead-end roads into highways. I thought I saw surprise in his eyes too. “I’m Ivy.”
I was relieved when he didn’t ask my last name.
It turned out that the whole time Cal had been sneak-attacking me, his dad had been fueling their car. Cal led me outside and introduced me to Gary Drysdale, who was like a grown-up version of Cal—same eyes, hair, and flair for friendly chatter. When Cal asked him if I could get a ride to Walter’s, I expected him to say no. Instead he agreed without any hesitation. Perhaps the Drysdales were naïve. More likely I was a scrawny girl who couldn’t look intimidating if I tried.
“We live on Pilot Knob Road, a couple miles north of Walter,” Cal explained to me. “So it’s no trouble at all!”
What were the odds of Cal living so close to Walter? It seemed more likely that Cal was the angel I was hoping for.
He pointed to my pack. “You want that in the trunk?”
I gripped the strap tighter. “No, thanks.” I didn’t know why I was reluctant to part with it. What was I planning to do—roll out of a moving vehicle for a quick getaway?
Cal opened the back door of the station wagon for me. I ducked in, expecting him to sit shotgun. Instead he followed me into the backseat. When his leg came dangerously close to mine, I hastily slid across to the opposite window and stuffed the bag between us.
“So where you from?” Cal asked me as his dad pulled out of the gas station.
Without thinking, I almost gave him the truth—Broadlands, Illinois. But that was a long way to come for a school paper. I couldn’t pretend to be from Galena, the school Cal most likely went to. I struggled to think of the last town the Greyhound had passed through. I remembered it had been a girl’s name . . .
“Sorry, I’m being nosy,” Cal said, his smile faltering at my hesitation.
“No,” I said quickly. For whatever reason, I didn’t want to hurt Cal. It would be like kicking a puppy. Suddenly my brain latched on to the answer I was searching for. “Elizabeth. I’m from Elizabeth.”
“Oh,” he said, brightening. “That’s not far. But how did you get to Galena? You didn’t walk thirteen miles, did you?”
I forced a laugh, trying to scramble out of the hole I was digging. “Nah, my dad gave me a ride into town. He, um, had to work though. But he’ll be done in time to pick me up from Walter’s house.”
This pathetic line of reasoning did not explain why my father would leave me at a gas station. Mr. Drysdale unknowingly saved me by asking about my connection to Walter. Thankfully Cal jumped in, so excited to know something about me he could tell his dad. He talked about my school paper while we left the city of Galena and entered the countryside. The road was curvy and hilly, not at all like the flat, straight-shot roads back home.
The clouds gathered ahead of us, laced together with lightning and ripped apart by thunder. We kept getting closer and closer to the storm, whereas it didn’t seem to move at all. It just hovered there, keeping its rain secret.
Watching the storm made me twitchier than ever, so I chose to focus on the trees. I’d seen more forested hills on this trip than I’d ever seen in my life. My home in Champaign County was known for its farmland and lack of topography, not its trees and high elevation. I loved to climb the one tree in our yard. During storms, being in a high location with optimal sky viewing was an obsessive urge. Today the urge felt even stronger than usual—maybe because I’d been stuck in the Greyhound for so long.
“Ivy?” Cal said. I got the impression it wasn’t the first time he’d said my name.
Wincing with guilt, I turned from the window to look at him. “Yeah?”
He handed me an empty M&M bag turned inside out. I was about to offer a sarcastic thanks, but then I saw numbers written in blue ink on the plastic.
“My phone number,” he explained. “In case you . . . in case you need a ride home.”
I stared at this boy I’d just met, whose kindness I didn’t deserve. I could tell by his solemn face this wasn’t a sneaky way of flirting with me. He’d probably guessed I’d lied about my dad. Now he was offering me a lifeline in case I hit a dead-end. I couldn’t find the words to tell him how grateful I was, so I simply nodded and slipped the number into my pocket.
“We’re almost there,” Cal said.
My head snapped back to the window. The first thing I saw was a brick building on the west side of the road. The marquee in front read:
HAZELWOOD VETERINARY CLINIC
TRAVIS HAZELWOOD, DVM
This obviously wasn’t Walter’s house, but I could feel the car slowing. About a quarter mile past the clinic I saw another sign:
PROPERTY OF JO DAVIESS CONSERVATION FOUNDATION
Cal’s dad turned at the sign. A gravel road stretched ahead of us, but the car veered left into a driveway. That was when I saw the old two-story farmhouse. Quaint blue shutters hugged the windows, but the house’s dull white paint was flaking off like dry skin. Two wooden rocking chairs swayed on the front porch. The driveway circled behind the house, where I glimpsed a white machine-shed and a small red barn. Chickens roamed free in the yard, constantly strutting and pecking. And everywhere trees—huge trees in the front yard, and smaller trees at the side of the house.
My fingers fumbled to open the car door. When I stepped out, wind swept through my clothes and tangled my hair. The air wasn’t cold, yet my skin prickled. A flash of light made me look up. The storm clouds, dark and writhing, loomed overhead. A crack of thunder answered the lightning strike. And still it did not rain.
The storm made my gut-churning nervousness worse. I always dreaded meeting new people, afraid of how they would react to me. This time went beyond dread; I really wanted to make a good first impression. I slung my bag over my shoulder and fussed with the hem of my gray t-shirt.
“Ivy?” Cal said from inside the car, probably wondering why I was standing there in the open doorway.
I plastered a smile on my face before turning to him. “Thanks for your help.”
Cal’s smile was worried. “You’re welcome.”
“Hope you get an A on your paper,” Mr. Drysdale said from the driver’s seat.
“Thanks. And thanks for the ride.”
“No problem at all.”
I couldn’t stall any longer. With a goodbye to Mr. Drysdale and a lingering last look at Cal, I shut the car door and walked toward the house. I kept my back straight and my feet steady so they wouldn’t know how scared I was. I heard the car drive away, but I didn’t turn to watch it. As nice as Cal had been, I didn’t expect to ever see him again. Walter was the only reason I was here. I had to meet him. I had to learn the truth.
Slowly I climbed the front steps to the old porch, pushing my tinted glasses all the way up my nose to make sure my eyes were hidden. I lifted my sweaty fist and knocked on the door. I stared down at my feet to make sure they didn’t bolt. Nothing happened. The ocean of possible scenarios threatened to drown me. It was nearly lunchtime on a Saturday; maybe he’d gone to Galena to eat at a restaurant. Maybe—
The door swung open. My eyes traveled from white socks to faded blue jeans to a black flannel shirt to a face. A familiar face.
Speechless, I could only stare at him—stare at him for the first time since I’d never met him or even seen a picture of him. In some ways, he was different than I’d predicted. Taller, broader, darker. His wrinkly skin was a rich brown, his wide-set eyes nearly black. His long black hair was streaked with a few strands of gray.
But the shape and contours of his face were just as I’d imagined. He had the right forehead, nose, cheekbones, jaw, ears. The same face as my father.
This had to be Walter Nimiki. My father’s father. The grandfather I’d never met . . . because my father had always told me he was dead.