Lightning, thunder, rain — Lauren Stearley

“The sky looks iffy.”

“It’ll blow over.”

“I mean…you think?”

“Yeah, it’s the mountains. Storms come and go like that.”

Laine kept her eyes up. She heard Van shoulder her pack, the slight clang of the cooking gear and her whistles.

“Laine,” Van said. “C’mon. You’ll feel better when you’re out there.”

Laine’s fingers rapped against the hood of her faded red Accord. She’d bought it herself last year, and already the engine coughed more than she liked.

“Laine,” Van said.

Laine nodded, and they went down the trailhead.

The plan was simple. One day in, they’d be halfway up Snake’s Peak, and then the next night would be spent on top of the peak. The rest would be going down. Three days, two nights, no big deal, except Laine had never been backpacking more than one night before. Van was training to hike the Appalachian Trail.

“Good path,” Van noted as they hiked.

“I guess so,” Laine said.

Laine didn’t know what Van was talking about. There was no path. There was green all over the ground, no white gravel marking where they were supposed to go.  There was one snake of packed dirt, and that was the only mercy. It was quiet too. The best and worst part of camping was the human silence. No cars, no radios, no high heels or bikes flying from behind. All the things Laine hated about college sidewalks were gone here.

“So, you like your classes, right?” Van said. “For your major I mean.”

“Don’t really like the accounting, but it’s fine.” Laine knew she was supposed to ask the question back, but didn’t.

“I like mine too,” Van said. “Though I have this one professor who’s a total dick. Always yammering about his personal life. Great, you have three houses and yacht. I’ve got forty grand in debt. Who gives a shit?”

“Sure.” Laine saw Van’s stick flinch over some rocks, saw Van roll her eyes, and added. “No, I mean that sounds terrible. I hate it when they just brag about themselves.”

“Mhhmm.”

Laine wished they didn’t have to hike single file, but it was impossible not to. Then again, she didn’t want Van to be watching her face either. Then she’d see how Laine was turning red in the face and sweating in the humidity, how the mosquitos kept buzzing around her ears and making her flinch. Then Van would tell her to toughen up, and Laine didn’t need another damn person telling her to toughen up.

After a few more hours of relative silence, they made it to a wide, flower-pocked field. Van stopped, leaning on the sticks.

“We break for five minutes or over fifteen,” Van said. “Otherwise we’ll cramp up.”

“Let’s do fifteen,” Laine was already putting her pack down, not negotiating.

“Alright.”

They sat and surveyed. The field flowers were long and wispy white, rippling in the slight breeze. There was one crop of blossoms that was an almost startling lush red. Laine glanced at Van, but the girl had her head tilted back and her eyes closed. So Laine crept over to give the flowers a closer look.

Up close, their petals looked like velvet. Their centers were popping yellow. Laine imagined tucking some into her hair, maybe braiding it around and sprinkling them through.

Just like a princess, Rita would say. Laine always looks like a princess, while the rest of us look like we rolled out a trashcan.

Laine snatched her hand back from the flowers, turned on her heel, and stomped off.

Van opened one grey eye. “You okay?”

“Bugs on my shoes.”

“Oh no, nature.” Van sat up and snagged her water bottle. It had stickers from the local lion preserve, from other state parks, the non-profit she worked for. Laine’s was new and bare and pink.

“How’s your pack feeling?” Laine asked.

Van had red marks all over her bare shoulders. Her hair was matting around her ears as she looked at Laine and said, “No complaints. How’re you doing?”

“It’s a little heavier then I thought.”

“I told you not to pack that tent,” Van said, and then she launched into an explanation of the evolution of tent mechanics in the last ten years or something. Laine wasn’t listening. The red flowers didn’t sway in the wind like they were made too stiff for such dancing. Not Rita-like at all.

Rita would shut Van up. Rita was always good at shutting people up. It made their friendship survive. Van talked. Rita shocked people to silence. Laine kept quiet. Without the middle connection, Van and Laine were opposites.

Not that Laine was here for that. Nope, not that.

.                                                                                            .                                                                                    .

“I just think it will be a good idea to reconnect.”

Laine glanced over at her therapist, Nina. Nina was wearing five necklaces and six rings and two skirts, somehow. One day, Laine was sure she’d come in wearing three pairs of shoes.

“I think we’ve grown apart too much,” Laine said. She looked up to the ceiling. She didn’t have to lay down on the couch like they did in shows. Most of the time she sat straight up with her eyes memorizing the watermarks on the ceiling. Or look straight down, into the tissues wound between her fingers.

“But your friend Van, she’s probably going through a similar thing to you,” Nina said. “You might be as good a help to her as she would be to you.”

“Van doesn’t want help. She never wants help.” Hell, Van would laugh if she knew I was here. But Laine wouldn’t say that.

.                                                                                            .                                                                                    .

They kept climbing. Laine’s favorite parts were when they walked along the ridgeline, the sky above rather than trees, always before they climbed higher. They reached one of the trail windows, the moments where a rocky outcrop broke the trees to reveal how high they’d come. Van didn’t set a time limit for this break and Laine praised the gods for it. Before them, the mountains slept in heaps, with green blankets covering their round shoulders. The air was silent.

Well, silent for about a minute. Then Van said, pointing. “That’s Grand Heights. That’s Crookman’s peak, over there’s Grandmother, down that way is Crowbill. You might see some falls from up here.”

“Don’t get too close to the edge.”

Van, already peering straight down the cliff face, rolled her eyes. “Sure, mother hen.”

Laine noticed scorch marks on the stone, and the darkening clouds above.

She glanced down at her compass, back up.

“We’re going to be heading east now?” Laine said.

“Yep. Final leg.”

Laine stared down. No towns. There’d be no lights at night. She stared up. The clouds were coming from the east. It was like walking the wrong way on the train tracks, seeing the train, and thinking, Oh, I can jump away in time.

“Are you still worrying about the storm?”

Laine nodded and Van sighed. “Look, it’s nothing to worry about, ‘kay? Worse comes to worse we’ll get the tent up early and just hunker down through it.”

“Are you sure?”

Now Van set both her feet and rolled back her shoulders. “Sure I’m sure. It’s not like I haven’t done this before.”

“I’m not insulting you,” Laine said. “I’m just worried.”

“Well stop. Your worrying isn’t going to change the weather.”

“It might change our course—“

“Just stop, okay? You get so…” Van made some fluttering, spastic gesture. “You get so worked up about shit, you know?”

“Oh really?”

“Nope. I didn’t say that. Forget I said that.” Van turned, headed away from the window. “Come on. Let’s keep climbing.”

.                                                                                            .                                                                                    .

Laine was twenty and single. She didn’t drink. She didn’t dance. Her parents had divorced when she was eleven, and that’s when she met Rita. Rita had sat with her at lunch and said,

“Caroline says your parents are splitting up.”

Caroline was a bitch. Laine swallowed her tater tots and said. “So?”

“So, like, do you get two TVs? One for each bedroom?”

“I don’t have a TV in my bedroom.”

Rita stared. “Shit, how do you survive?”

Laine glanced around, making sure there were no teachers to here Rita curse. Rita laughed.

“You’re jumpy. Are you going to drink your milk?”

“Yeah. I mean, yes.”

“Damn, I wanted it.”

“Go buy your own. And stop cursing.

And Rita had sat with her for every lunch after that, and Laine hadn’t minded at all. High school wasn’t so bad, except that’s when Rita brought Van in. Rita was in drama, and Van basically was the stage tech for their entire school. Laine was captain of her school’s tennis team. After Laine told her, Van constantly teased her about becoming a senator’s wife.

“It wouldn’t be that bad,” Laine had said. “I mean, you’d get to stay home all day?”

“Stay home? By yourself?” Van had laughed. “That’s how people go crazy, being by themselves. Call me when you need to dump the body.”

“I’d come and visit you in your mansion,” Rita looped her arm through Laine’s. “And we could go swimming in the pool your husband would lovingly provide.”

Van snorted, as Laine knew she would. “You might be okay with a man being your provider, but I’m not relying on him for shit.”

Rita laughed. She had the hot red dress laugh, the kind of laugh people around them would stop and glance over at. Later, Laine would feel grey next to it. But that was fine. Laine liked being reliable. She liked knowing what bed she’d wake up in. She liked being the ones her friends called when they needed a safe ride home.

Or she had liked it. Once.

.                                                                                            .                                                                                    .

They’d just found a half-decent clearing when they heard the thunder. Van looked up and Laine was already setting down her pack.

“It’s going to rain,” Laine said. “Like I said.”

“Just get the tent up,” Van replied.

Thunder rumbled like a bulldozer in the distance. It made Laine’s hair rise.

“We should head back?”

“We’re in the middle of the range.” Van was digging her pack for the hammer. “There’s no going back.” Van tried a smile. “Gotta do crazy shit while you’re young, huh?”

“Well.”

.                                                                                            .                                                                                    .

For the third high school summer they went on a beach trip. It was one of those trips where Laine made lists of how much food to buy for each day, and then six extra people showed up, and they had to survive on order-in pizza instead.

Laine woke before everyone else. She rolled off the couch in the upstairs game room and wandered her way down the spiral staircase. Sand crunched under her feet and stayed between her toes as she padded into the kitchen.

Rita sat at the breakfast table. She was wrapped in an orange towel embroidered with turtles. Her shoulders and hair were still ocean wet.

“Oh, you’re awake,” Laine said. “I’m surprised. You were up so late with everyone.”

“Got coffee over there,” Rita said. “Help yourself.”

Laine nodded and ventured to the counter. She sniffed the coffee and couldn’t stop her nose from wrinkling. Well, if Van hadn’t invited the extra people, they wouldn’t have run out of the good stuff. Instead, Laine went to the freezer and dug out some toaster strudel.

Outside, the ocean was glassy and soft. Laine leaned against the counter and watched it while the toaster sizzled.

“Hey, Laine,” Rita said. “Are you okay?”

“Oh sure.”

“Nope, don’t do that thing.”

Laine turned and smiled. “What?”

“That thing, you do this,” Rita lowered her head and swept her eyes to the side and sighed, all very dramatic in Laine’s opinion. “And you act like you’re fine when you’re not. “

It was like having a spotlight cut on before your cue. Laine felt her eyes were glued wide. She hadn’t realized she was that obvious. Everyone else said they never knew when she was unhappy, that she had to tell them because how the hell were they supposed to know? She was the problem, not the people who didn’t get it.

Rita was waiting. Laine shrugged. She tried to rub some of the sand off on her ankle with her other foot but it just scratched at her skin.

“Sorry,” Laine said finally. “I don’t want to be a pain. I’m just not one for crowds of loud people.”

“Loud drunk people, you mean,” Rita said, but she smiled. Rita made room at the breakfast bench and Laine sat beside her.

“I’m just saying,” Rita said. “Don’t be so stiff. We’re young and alive and—“

“Nope, you’re wrong,” Laine said. “I’m not actually alive. I’ve fooled you this whole time.”

Rita didn’t look away from Laine’s face, not quite smiling anymore. “I’m just saying you can be all sad when you’re old and ugly. Now, we can live like there’s no tomorrow.”

“But there will be a tomorrow.”

Rita didn’t respond. The toaster popped and Laine went to retrieve the goods when there was a clatter from above, then some thunderous swearing, before Van finally pummeled down the staircase. Laine didn’t move, half-aghast. Rita straightened up and grinned.

“See?” Rita said. “Van had a good time last night. Van is living the life right now.”

“I vomited in the sink,” Van grumbled, snatching the bleach from the cabinet before clambering back upstairs.

Laine lifted an eyebrow at Rita and mouthed vomit.

“Oh fuck off,” Rita said, but then they both started laughing.

.                                                                                            .                                                                                    .

The wind picked up. Leaves whirled around Laine’s feet, into the tent as she unfurled it. But the birds were still chirping. That was good, right? Birds were smart and wouldn’t be around if the storm was bad. Laine separated the stakes, poles, and got the tent to lie flat down when the wind tried to tear it back up.

“Do you stake it first?” Laine said.

“I’ll do it,” Van said.

“I can do it, just tell me if you stake it first.”

“Start putting together the poles,” Van said, swinging the hammer down on the stakes. The rhythmic crack was louder than the thunder, but not by much.

Laine started snapping the tent poles into place. They bent like reeds as she slid them through. Van got on the other side, and together they hoisted the tent up just as the first lightning flash cut over their heads.

Laine screamed. She couldn’t help it. Van didn’t hear it over the thunder.

“Stop crying and get in the tent!” Van said.

Laine couldn’t move. The rain was starting to come down. It felt like ice on her face, her shoulders. The thunder came again, loud as the sound of a deer hitting your car hood. It shook her chest. It was blinding.

“Laine, get in the tent,” Van said.

“This was your idea,” Laine said.

“I know! So—“

“It was your stupid idea.”

“Yeah, bitch, I know.”

Laine spun. “Do you?”

Van was crouched down in the tent. “What the fuck are you talking about, Laine?”

“Nothing,” Laine stalked into the tent and yanked the zipper closed.

Laine knew wind could howl. It could also scream, curse, and kick. Like a dad having a tantrum at his son’s baseball game. So mean and useless.

“Thank god we got the packs in,” Van was saying. “The food’s in the tent, but as soon as it stops we need to get it out.”

“Will it stop?”

“Of course.”

Laine laid down on her sleeping bag and faced the tent wall. It was inches from her face, undulating and rippling like it was the ocean in a storm and not plastic. She had a sudden memory of the Blair Witch Project, that scene where all the spirits or whatever started beating against the tent walls. They’d been screaming in the film. Maybe it was a metaphor, she thought. Probably. Something beating against the walls that you couldn’t do anything but scream against.

“You wanna play cards or something?” Van asked. Then, “Laine, do you want to play cards or not?”

“It was your shitty idea,” Laine said.

“You’ve said. But it’s not my fault the storm—“

Laine stopped listening. There was a flash of lightning followed instantly by thunder. It felt like the moment when the seatbelt engaged after you hit the brakes.

“Why’d you bring these star maps?” Van said. “They’re fucking useless.”

Van was right. There’d be no stars outside tonight. The most stars Laine had ever seen were on that road a year ago, but that’s because it’d been night and in nowhere. Just fields whispering around them. Fucking useless.

.                                                                                            .                                                                                    .

It was high school, almost senior year summer, and the leaves hadn’t been picked off the tobacco yet.  So what was green was black that night too.

Laine’s hands clutched the steering wheel. Van was in the seat next to her, saying something loud and slurred. Rita was laughing. Laine was thinking of her chemistry final the next day and thinking of how her best friends smelled like cheap alcohol and sweat and please God don’t let them get pulled over.

“Why do you party during exam weeks?” Laine asked. “I don’t get it.”

“I know, Laine, we’re so irresponsible, “ Rita said.

“I don’t think Laine gets the conshe—conceptual ideas of stress release,” Van said. She kept changing the radio station, finding static left and right, and cursing. “Christ, it’s static.”

“Stop messing with my presets,” Laine said.

“Oh, Laine’s being snappy tonight?” Van leaned over and started tickling Laine’s side. “Laine needs some lighten up time, huh?”

“Don’t touch me while I’m driving!”

“Van,” Rita leaned between the two seats and set her hand flat on Van’s face. “Van Vanny Van Van stop messing with her for once. Van, listen, she’s not—“

Laine was the only one sober and she hadn’t seen the deer. Then it was squealing brakes and the road turning to sky. Laine remembered after she’d pulled herself from the car, thinking that some guy was going to be pissed his field had been torn up by a rogue Jeep. Her car and them left rubble and glass and blood everywhere in the crushed stalks. Some poor guy would be so pissed off. There was a body on the road. Some poor guy…

Laine walked, somehow barefoot, past silent fields, under useless stars, to the nearest light. It was a gas station, the kind of place she’d never be at this time of night. The guy behind the counter started yelling at her soon as he saw her.

By the end of the night, Laine had a concussion and some minor scratches. Van had some cracked ribs and a concussion. Rita had died instantly.

.                                                                                            .                                                                                    .

Laine woke when someone shook her.

“I can’t believe you slept through that,” Van said. “It was a bitch of a storm.”

Laine looked at Van and heard radio static. Then she said, “I need to pee.”

Van handed her the flashlight. “Don’t go too far.”

Laine took the flashlight and went out. The shock of darkness had her stopping. She peered up.

No stars. Good.

She proceeded carefully. The forest was loud, recuperating from the storm. Everything glimmered in the flashlight from the rain. Leaves coated in glass. The ground sparkling with slime. Laine was shivering. Her breath clouded up in front of her. One time, her mom had told her that spider’s eyes turned red in the light of a flashlight. So did fish, and alligators. She wanted no red eyes. She’d never felt so small and human.

She kept walking. Not far enough that the tent wasn’t in sight. She wasn’t stupid, even if she was angry. Laine stopped. Angry? Was she angry? About what? She could practically hear Nina’s voice. Talk it out, Laine. What are you angry about?

“She shouldn’t have been messing with me,” Laine said to herself. “She should’ve worn a seat belt. She should’ve left the radio alone. She should’ve left me alone. Why did they go out during exams? It was probably Van’s stupid idea.” It was always Van’s stupid idea. Laine remembered, after that crash night, calling Van and asking her, over and over, “Why did you mess with the radio?” And Van always said, “I wasn’t messing with the radio.”

“Yes, you were.”

“No, I wasn’t.”

“Fuck, you were! Don’t lie to me!”

“I don’t remember it, and neither do you!”

Laine peered at the soaked trees, the glistening black stones. It would all freeze over.

“I remember everything,” Laine said.

“Like not to go so far?”

Laine screamed, stumbled, and then she pitched forward and it felt like she fell for ages before hitting the ground and rolling. Van was calling her name, running down the slope and Laine vaguely heard her voice turn into words.

“…shit fuck fuck Laine what the hell!” Van’s knees were by Laine’s eyes, then Laine closed her eyes. Van kept talking. “Girl, you spook at literally anything. I told you not to go so far and you were taking ages and—“

“Why were you lying?” Laine said to the ground.

“What?”

“About Rita. Why did you lie?”

Van shut up. Laine took a deep breath. She felt the dirt around her mouth, smelled the ripe earth.

“Laine, I think—“

“Why did you mess with the radio? Why did you make her lean forward? Why did you take her out in the first place? And why did you call me?”

Laine’s chest was heaving. Her throat burned.

“You’re bleeding,” Van said quietly.

“If you hadn’t—if you hadn’t called—if you’d gotten a taxi or some shit—then I wouldn’t…and she wouldn’t…”

Van didn’t respond for a while. Laine wanted to curl up and just stay there. Let the ground breathe her in. She’d turn into red flowers—no, just plain white ones, that someone would pick and put in their hair.

Then an arm looped around her back and hauled her up. Laine stumbled vertical.

“We’re getting you back to the tent,” Van said. She put Laine’s arm over her shoulders. “You’re bleeding, and I’m not letting your leg rot off.”

“Rot off?” Laine repeated.

“It could get infected.”

“It’s not the Civil War. I’m not going to get gangrene or some shit.”

“I’ll treat it,” Van said. “I have a first aid kit.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“I’ll treat it.”

Laine rolled her eyes over. The flashlight swayed up and down with their steps, sometimes illuminating Van’s face. It made Van’s fair skin ghostly, her eyes shining.

Then Laine realized Van was crying.

“Hey,” Laine said.

“I’ll treat it,” Van said. “It’s only a scratch. You’ll be fine because I’ll treat it.”

Laine opened her mouth, shut it. Faced ahead, and tried to take some of the weight off Van’s shoulders to her own feet. “I brought extra bandages. Just in case.