Lightning on the Lake

Submitted into Contest #235 in response to: Start your story with one or two characters going for a run.... view prompt


Contemporary Sad Fiction

A drop of rain soaked into Erin’s cheek. It had been three weeks to the day since she’d stood, garbed in black beneath the beating sun, watching Henry’s family lower him into the ground. Not another drop had fallen since. 

But now, thick, charcoal clouds pushed nearer as she tied her shoes, eyes flashing to the ring that had barely had time to make an indent. Her chest tightened. Was it more rain that dripped from her face to the still-hot pavement? Or was she crying again?  

Thunder cracked in the distance. Erin scrambled with her laces and stood, fighting hard against the thought that the place she wanted to run to was back inside, under the covers. But beneath her comforter, there would be only stale, hot stillness. Out in the rain, at least, there would be air. There would be movement.

Summer storms were wildly predictable in the Florida town Erin grew up in. Starting at the end of July, the sky darkened every afternoon promptly at 4:30 and a storm would spit and howl, raising an ungodly tantrum until 5:15. Afterward, the moss draped like old sheets over the oak branches, and each step raised from the slick grass petrichoric memories of summers past, of school breaks spent watching frogs emerge from their mudholes and snails slide over the saturated pavement. 

But the storms had a different purpose now. 

Erin stepped off the curb and began to jog. If she headed east, she would meet the storm head-on. Like most times when she ran after the blackening clouds, her mother’s voice whispered from the back shadows of her mind. 

You shouldn’t run in a thunderstorm. You’ll get struck by lightning.

And like most times, she forced the thought away. Starting down the rounding road, she kept her legs from taking her away too fast. They were used to running, having spent countless hours treading high school tracks and well-worn paths through this same neighborhood. But Erin was not the lanky, leggy runner she once was. Loving Henry had made her soft.

“You know, you don’t furrow anymore,” her mother had said when Erin and Henry had been together six months.

“What do you mean?” Erin had asked. 

Her mother had leaned over the kitchen table and traced her thumb along one of Erin’s eyebrows. “Furrow.” She mimicked the expression.

Three weeks later, they’d buried her. It was pretty soon after that when Erin started chasing lightning.

Her eyes filled at the memory, at the unfairness of it all. She blinked as the muscles in her legs pleaded with her to run faster. 

“Not yet,” she breathed. “Not yet.” 

She made her way slowly along the suburban sidewalk hugged by hundred-year-old oaks, her feet padding to the rhythm of the strengthening raindrops. Thunder cracked once more, louder, and startled her. Her heart fluttered, and her legs strained to keep up.

“Not yet,” she told them again.

When she finally turned the first corner, her muscles began to relax, and she picked up the pace. She had to time it right, to reach the edge of the lake just as the storm was directly overhead. At this rate, she figured she’d make it. She’d done it enough times before. 

Three years ago, when her mother died, it was Henry who’d suggested she start running again. 

“It can’t hurt, can it?” he’d asked, rubbing her shoulders. Her head had sagged into her hands, elbows digging into that same kitchen table.

“I can’t run,” she’d whispered. “It’s raining.”

“Well, not now, but when it clears up.” He’d slid into the seat across from her, smiling the way he always did with his chin tucked in and his lips pressed together. The sweetest smile.

But her eyes had drifted from it to the window, and the flashes in the distance had seemed to beckon her. 

“Maybe I will go now.” She’d stood and turned to the hall.

“What? Not now. Not while it’s storming. Erin—”

“I need to.”

She’d fished shorts and a t-shirt from her overnight bag and stuffed her feet into an old pair of sneakers. Henry protested all the while, but, for some reason, it had only made her want to go more. 

“I wish you wouldn’t,” he’d said as he opened the front door for her. That was Henry’s way. He may not have liked it, but he let her go.

The rain had been so loud across the threshold, and Erin had felt unsure. But Henry hugged her. “I’ll have a towel ready for you when you get back.”

Running in the storm had been frightening that day. The wind shoved the rain one way, then the other. Her old shoes soaked up puddles and wrinkled her toes. The wetness had weighed her down. 

She remembered reaching a fork in the road just as lightning flashed to her left, a shot of thunder quickly following. Her heart had jolted, breath catching in her throat. But something in her had come alive. 

Henry was right. This is crazy, she’d thought as she turned left. You’re gonna get yourself killed. Had it been her mother’s voice in that moment, too? Regardless, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she had to do it. She chased the storm all the way to the edge of the lake for the first time that day. 

Thinking about it now, Henry must have been so worried. How could she have put him through that? Sweet Henry, who had been waiting for her, towel in hand, when she got back. Whose worrying eyes had betrayed the tucked smile he was wearing when he looked at her. Standing there in the doorway, just as he said he’d be. 

“Thank God.” He’d breathed the words into her ear with a choked laugh. Balancing on the threshold, storm quieting behind her, Erin had rested her cheek against his shoulder until eventually he let go, an imprint of her body lingering on his t-shirt.

Two years had passed since that day. Erin wished Henry would be waiting for her, towel in hand, when she eventually returned. But he wouldn’t. 

Her dad would be, but that wasn’t the same. He was a kind man—with twinkling eyes, Erin always thought—but when Erin’s mother died and Erin went to stay with him, he’d disappeared. The only signs of him were tools re-hung and labeled in the shed. Fresh roach bait in the corner of the bathroom, and grass that never seemed to grow. 

It went on for weeks. And then, one day, he came back. It happened in the evening one Thursday after the casseroles had run out and Erin had gone to get groceries again. When she got home and popped the trunk, he peeked out from behind the garage door.  

“Let me take some of those,” he’d said, waddling toward her like a goose airing its wings. He loaded up and carried in the brown plastic bags, Erin following close behind with several more. She’d lugged them onto the counter and wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead. 

Her father stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her. She stood still and wide-eyed, then grabbed him. 

“Thank you, Erin,” he’d said.

“For the groceries?”

“For staying.” He’d squeezed her so tight, tears poured from her eyes. 

He’d come back that day, but he’d left his twinkling eyes behind. 

A shock of thunder brought Erin back to her run. She had to make it to the edge of the lake in time. It was the only thing that would make this worth it. She continued on, focusing hard on each individual step. One and then another. One and then another. She repeated it like a mantra.

It had been three weeks already since her father had insisted she stay with him. She supposed she was the one who’d disappeared this time. The sun cast sharp rays through the window each morning and made her eyes water. Food pulled from Henry’s corner of the family garden made her nauseous. Every now and then she’d shower. Every few days she’d eat. But mostly, she slept. 

Today was the first time she’d run, and it was Henry who’d put her up to it. It must have been a dream for how real it felt. Erin was barely awake but saw Henry standing at the end of her bed. She bunched the covers around her face, refusing to open her eyes completely. If she didn’t, maybe he would stay there.

“Hi, sweetheart.” His voice sounded different.

Hi, she thought, not caring.

She felt him sit on the side of the bed, and pat her arm. “You know this won’t help.” 

“It might,” she said, wiping her nose on the fabric in her fist.

“It won’t.” Behind blurred eyes, she saw him shake his head. “Why don't you run?” It wasn’t a question the way he said it.

“There’s no storm today.”

Then thunder called her bluff.

But now that she was running, she knew she’d been right. It didn’t feel good. It wasn’t going to help. But the wind, the storm, the muscles in her legs, all egged her on. If she could make it through two more turns, she’d have a straight shot to the edge of the lake. She just had to give it everything she had.  

She forced herself to lengthen her stride just enough to pull her around the first turn in good time. Rain dripped from her eyelashes and elbows, and each footfall felt like landing in thick mud. Her shoes caught on the cement and tripped her, but she clamored on and rounded the first turn.

More lightning flashed. Hurry, she thought. Her muscles began to burn, and Erin felt what little resolve she had weaken. 

The second turn seemed ages away. A yard ahead, two ducks were hunkered down beneath the cover of an azalea. A mallard and his mate. Her mind sent thoughts she didn’t want to think. 

You can’t hold his hand. You can’t see his smile. He’s gone. He’s

“Please stop,” she whispered between breaths. “Stop, stop, stop.” Her chest began to heave. “No, come on.”

But her legs ached, and she stopped. The storm raced on without her, and she watched it swirl ahead to the lake. Flashes lit up the sky, and she knew she’d missed her chance. She grasped her knees and sobbed. 

By the time she made it home, the sky was clear. She sloshed into the bathroom, shivering in the air conditioning, and kicked off her shoes. As she turned the shower to hot, knuckles tapped against the door. She jumped. 

“You alright, Er? You were gone for a while.” Her father’s voice was quiet.

“Fine,” she mumbled back. 

“What’s that?”

“Fine, Dad!”

A beat passed. “Glad you made it home okay.”

Erin sighed and stepped, fully clothed, into the shower. Layer by layer, she peeled off her clothes and slopped them over the shower rod. Her legs crumbled beneath her, head coming to rest against the ceramic siding of the tub, where she remained until the hot water ran out. 

The next day, she didn’t run. 

“I can’t,” she said when Henry appeared again. 

“You can,” he said.

“No, I can’t!” She chucked a pillow in his direction, but it surfed across the room and knocked a frame from the bookshelf. Henry was gone, and Erin buried her head under her covers.

Six days, six storms, passed before Erin could bring herself to move again. In a daze, she knelt to tie her running shoes. Opening the front door brought the wet smell of an impending storm rushing in, and she felt a shudder of dread, anticipation, and a memory of those afternoons years ago when she’d last been to the lake. 

With the bandage of days trapped in bed compressing her legs, she set out. She wasn’t going to get there fast, but she’d get there. She had to. 

The wind was warm, and beads of sweat quickly formed along her hairline. Each step was a fight, a pain, a choice. But memories flickered in her mind like bolts between the clouds and urged her on.  

After a short time, the rain poured down and hung heavy on her, but she pushed past the first turn. Just one more step. She repeated the thought like clock ticks and refused to let her mind linger on anything but reaching the lake in time. 

The second turn was coming up and the clouds were furious overhead. Her twitching muscles pounded harder as lightning struck, and the familiar thrill became a current through her body. At the second turn, Erin looked down the sidewalk, an arm beckoning her to the water’s edge. She couldn’t hold back today; she needed to get there, to see it. 

Her clothes clung like saggy skin as she powered across each square of cement. Thunder tore at the sky. The lake was growing near. The thought, the inkling that she might make it, that she might see it again, constricted her throat. She began to sob, her breaths turning ragged. Clouds converged over the water. Twenty more squares, fifteen, ten, five… 

Her feet left the concrete for grass which melted quickly into soft, brown earth. She stopped and grasped her legs, her back rising and falling. The storm churned the lake like a giant washer, and Erin imagined diving below the surface, floating to the top in the very center of the lake to watch from below the spectacle that was about to appear. She wished she could let the water push her side-to-side until she emerged on the shore again, clean and new beneath a clearing sky.

She jogged her weary legs along the shallow beach until she was hidden from view by the sprawling oaks and cypress trees. The suburb disappeared and so did Erin, as she squatted to sit on an old tire several yards from the water’s edge. She hugged her knees to her chest and scanned the sky, chewing her bottom lip. 

Come on, come on, come on, please, she prayed.

Then thunder crashed and the clouds twirled overhead until the entire sky was moving counter-clockwise. At the center, a single spot of lightning cast across the clouds. Erin’s breath caught. It happened again, several times, encasing the lake in white light. The rain slowed as staccato bolts tapped the water like fingertips on a piano. Note after note tore down and undulated across the water. The melody resonated somewhere deep between Erin’s chest and her stomach, somewhere, at all other times, unreached. Its chords, like the strips of light, rippled outward from her arms and legs as if beckoning her to join.  

Tears flowed freely from her eyes, but she did not feel sad. She did not feel heavy. Thoughts did not burden her. Each bolt sang; each clap awakened her to something present yet utterly untouchable. Flash by flash, she felt a stir; web by web, a sense of peace.

The bolts came faster, the thunder louder, the wind harsher, the waves higher—

And then, just as quickly as the scene arrived, a final web of lightning cast itself out across the neighborhood and vanished. The sky began to shift, and the rain softened to a drizzle.

Erin remained, eyes glazed toward the water, hoping maybe this time there would be an encore. But within moments, the brightening sky brought back the thoughts she’d sought reprieve from. With great effort, she set her feet on the sand and stood. She stared deep into the dark water, willing herself not to sit back on that lonesome tire.

Turning away was agony. Each step toward home felt slower than the last. But all the same, Erin was aware that somewhere in that deep, unreached place, a sense of lightness had broken in. Dimmer than it had been by the lake, but still there. She’d realized that afternoon two years ago, when she’d first seen the lightning dance on the lake, that something had been birthed within her. It swelled during the storms and receded between them, but was never fully gone. And it called her back to the shore, to a refuge during days too dark to see through.

When she arrived home, the house was quiet. She showered, wrapped her hair in a towel, grabbed a clean pair of clothes, and found her father reading on the back porch. She sat beside him, tucking her legs up and resting her toweled head on his shoulder.  

“You were gone a while.”

Erin breathed in deep and let the air out slow. “It helped. Today at least.”

He kissed her on the forehead. “I hoped it would.”

The next day, Erin ran again, and the day after that too. She missed the storm on days when her legs were too heavy and her arms couldn’t pump. In the mornings, she cursed the hours she had to spend waiting. When missing Henry consumed her, she skipped days, longing for him to appear again and pat her arm and tell her to run. But he didn’t. Then on days when he stirred her from coveted sleep, she wept and thrashed and cursed him for doing this to her. 

Her father, meanwhile, never asked her how she was doing. He didn’t hover nearby or make her feel like she had to sit for dinner or clean the dishes. But she did notice a towel waiting for her in the foyer after her runs. The vase in her room held hydrangeas that never wilted. Shriveled tubes of toothpaste fattened, and dirty running clothes turned clean and dry. 

And her father, who didn’t know what else to do, would every few days step into her room just before 4:30 in the afternoon and sit on the side of the bed, patting her arm.  

Why don’t you run, he’d say. It was never a question.

January 26, 2024 19:23

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Timothy Rennels
01:25 Feb 08, 2024

Very well written Megan. Very sad, but running can be strong medicine. Write on!


Megan Maclaine
16:12 Feb 08, 2024

Thank you tons, Timothy! That means a lot. Glad you enjoyed the story ^.^


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L.M. Huntwork
02:20 Feb 03, 2024

This was a beautiful story. I was captured by the first few sentences and compelled to read on until the very last word. You're a phenomenal storyteller.


Megan Maclaine
02:50 Feb 05, 2024

Thank you so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed it 🥹


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