The Day the Lightning Wasn’t Beautiful
Struck by lightning. That was how she died. Fitting, I thought, for a friend who used to break her ankles jumping out of trees and set small fires in the backs of classrooms where teachers didn’t pay attention. They were contained, of course, the fires, and only set for good reasons, when we passed notes and she wrote about a crush or a particularly devious secret. And they never hurt anybody. The secrets or the fires.
When she died, we hadn’t seen each other in a month. Maybe three. I thought that was just how life went—people got busy and certain things fell by the wayside but always got picked up again. But she died, and I still had one of her hoodies. I had almost forgotten it, shoved into the back of my closet to wait for a return voyage. When I got the news, in the form of three online article links detailing the lightning strike that killed a lightning strike of a woman, the only picture my mind kept bringing to the surface was of her, younger, cocky, balancing on top of a metal fence. We were at an amusement park, bored in line, the line for my first roller coaster ride ever. I was skeptical. She, of course, loved them. She was fearless. She was a force to be reckoned with, her hiking boots firmly planted on the topmost bar. Jeans with a solitary hole in the left knee, a plain white tank top, and that green hoodie. Deep, forest green, split open by the zipper, hanging loose on her figure, hood up, keeping the sun from her red hair. She hated how it bleached in the summer. Her fingers formed a gun, pointed lovingly at the camera.
She’d changed so much since then—had sex, went to Italy, accidentally made a toxic gas by cleaning up cat pee out of her mattress. She had a dog the size of a small horse named Sunny. He bit me once but only hard enough to startle. I watched as we drifted apart, and she started taking artsy photos with scarves instead of clothes. She cut off all that red hair and dyed it black.
Had high school really been that long ago? Could we, two freshmen, ever have seen her inevitable end? Should I have seen this coming, with the number of Band-Aids she went through in her life and the number of juvenile dares that she took on with stupid and somewhat enviable abandon? I was always so cautious, calling her back when she went too far. All of our friends watched her with awe. Sometimes it felt like I was just riding her coattails. Once she tricked us all and spent half of sophomore year wearing a wig, convincing us all that she had gone in for one drastic haircut. The glee in her eyes the day she came in, months later, with that old red hair and saw our faces—it made me furious, but it just fueled her fire. She was untrustworthy but in a good way. A contradiction, but it would make sense if you met her.
I don’t know what she looked like when she died. The articles all said that the nameless young woman (whenever I read that I closed my eyes and said her name three times. I understand confidentiality in journalism, but it still lit a flare in my gut to think that people wouldn’t know her name) had been performing lifeguarding duties when the storm rolled in on the Upper Peninsula, but that could mean a million things.
When I imagine that moment—and I do, not to be morbid—all I can see is her, red hair streaming behind her as she runs along the sand, along the shore, along the waves. She is one with the storm, not a victim of it. Her face says, Come and get me.
I suppose it did.
I didn’t go to the funeral. Not because I didn’t want to—God, I wanted to—but because distance is a force to be reckoned with in and of itself. There was no way to take off from school and work and scrape together the money to go back home on such short notice. Why doesn’t anyone give more notice when they’re about to die?
My father went instead. “We take care of our own,” he said to me, and I wasn’t sure if he meant he was taking care of them or me. He said her grandma was looking for me and had been worried that I wouldn’t know what had happened. She was a sweet lady, the one who introduced me to Pączkis and let me get powdered sugar all over her couch while we ate them. Dad said that they all missed me—her parents and her brothers and her dog. He said they told him she’d recently rededicated her life to Christ, so I felt a little better. We’ll see each other again, and it won’t matter if she was different when she died.
I wore that hoodie for a week straight, wondering how much right I had to grieve. It had been so long. We were closer to not being friends any more than we were to being confidants. When had we last spoken? Really spoken? Did I really have anything to grieve? Regardless of whether or not I possessed the rights to our friendship or not, I needed to grieve. I needed to miss her. I needed to tell all my wacky stories about her. I tried to emulate her confidence and that stance from the photo in my mind. Finger guns out. Feet braced. Cocky grin. But no red hair. No lightning. It wasn’t her.
There was a dime-sized hole in the hood, on the right. Slightly charred. It was from a stray spark off a bonfire a few years ago. She was always too close. We thought her head might go up in flames, but she laughed as she patted the ember down and went back to shenanigans as usual.
I was never as bold as she was.
I’m glad I didn’t go to the funeral. I didn’t want to look her in the face and apologize for the way we took different paths. I didn’t want to give back her hoodie. I’ll see her again.
Raised in Grand Rapids, MI, and living in Chicago, IL, Lauren DeVries has always needed to process through writing. Her work includes two poems and a piece of short fiction, published by The North Branch Literary Journal (North Park University) and Kaleidoscope (Michigan Readers’ Association), and poetry on Instagram (@nowgo_poetry).