Not many people are killed by lightning.
Zac’s mother was.
Zachary Sparks, though small for ten years old, had a look of perpetual astonishment that made him seem larger than life. His eyes were nearly the biggest part of him, round and wide, and his eyebrows had a natural arch as if held up with invisible strings. His voice was high and excitable and his whole body seemed full of little springs. Even his hair, fiery red and frizzy, looked as if he was the one hit by lightning. Everything about Zac Sparks was up, up, up.
Zac lived with his mother beside a golf course. Every day after school he used to pick up balls from his back yard and sell them for fifty cents apiece. He was happy and carefree and his mother was good to him. He had no father. At least, he’d never known his father.
At night, when there were no golfers, Zac’s mother liked to go walking across the wide, rolling lawns of the course. To her it was like a big park. She never met anyone else out there. This was a small town and it was quite safe (except for lightning). She liked being in nature, she liked the solitude of night, and she walked all year round. She loved all kinds of weather, but especially weather that had what she called character, the kind you could feel on your skin: wind, cold, hail, pelting rain, thunder and lightning.
Whenever a good electrical storm happened in the middle of the night, Zac’s mother would wake him and they’d sit on the veranda listening to the long, almost articulate rumbles and watching the lightning illuminate the great treed corridors of grass. The two wouldn’t say much. They didn’t have to. The sky did the talking for them. The rain too made different, distinct sounds as it fell on leaves, on bushes, on the shake roof, on the gravel drive, on the bare earth of the gardens. Some of Zac’s happiest memories were of sitting up with his mother late at night to revel silently in storms.
The irony was, Zac’s mother was killed by something she loved. It happened one night when she went walking on the golf course in the pouring rain, carrying, as usual, her umbrella. Of course she wouldn’t have gone walking on an open golf course in a thunderstorm, especially with an umbrella––she knew better than that. But this was not a thunderstorm. On this night there just happened to be one stray bolt of lightning.
One was all it took. Her crumpled body was found the next morning in the center of a fairway. The canopy of her umbrella had been completely consumed, leaving nothing but the skeletal metal frame.
It was the first day of December, just weeks before Christmas, and Zac Sparks was an orphan.
* * *
A few days later…
Having fallen asleep in the chair, Zac awoke suddenly. It was still dark, though not completely. The first gray light of dawn hung in the air like something not so much present as faintly remembered. Zac felt something was about to happen. He almost smelled it more than saw it, sensed it so strongly that, though he was shivering with cold and ought to have crawled into bed, instead he lingered at the window in the gradually increasing light.
Below him the scene was the same as the day before, yet utterly transformed by a fresh blanket of new snow. It was like awaking to a different world, all soft and glistening, changed to a beautiful strangeness. St. Heldred’s church, as clean and white as a building could be, looked dingy by comparison with its surrounding glory, while Eldy’s Balloon and Flower stand, festooned with drifts, might have been a fairy palace. Every letter of the Porter’s General Store sign wore a stole of radiant white and every windowsill of every house, every crossbar of every window, was dressed as with an altar cloth from heaven. Telephone poles and fence posts were capped like little bishops with perfect, conical hats and even the delicate icing on the power lines lay untouched in tall, magnificently unbroken rows of holy stillness.
It was all so exquisite that Zac knelt by the window with his nose to the glass, trying to get as close to the beauty as he could. And that’s when he saw the man.
He was standing in the doorway of Porter’s Store. He wore a white shopkeeper’s apron, white as the snow, and he was completely still, as still as the dawn. He seemed perfectly a part of this quiet, perfect morning. At first Zac couldn’t quite make him out in the semidarkness, wasn’t even sure he was really there. Then, gradually, beneath the white apron appeared denim overalls and a red flannel shirt. One hand rested on his waist while in the other he held what at first seemed a walking stick, but turned out to be a furled umbrella.
At this point, with the charred skeleton of the umbrella that had killed his mother still vividly etched in his mind, the boy at the window nearly turned away from the man across the street. But something kept him looking.
That something was the man’s face, clearer now in the growing light. Right away Zac saw it was not a handsome face, not by a long stretch. No, a plainer face could hardly be imagined. What was striking about it, however, was how full of character and good humor it was. This was a peculiarly happy face, and for that reason, attractive.
Correctly guessing the man to be Mr. Porter, Zac couldn’t help staring, as the storekeeper in turn surveyed the silent, snowy morning. Still he had not moved; all that changed was the light. Though Zac couldn’t see the sun rise himself, he knew Mr. Porter was seeing it. New-minted light was reflected in the man’s countenance, in his eyes, in his smile that was as warm as if his best friend––in the person of the morning––had just arrived at his doorstep.
He was still beaming when he happened to glance up at the window where Zac was watching, and their eyes met. Embarrassed, Zac drew back behind the curtain, and when he looked again Mr. Porter had withdrawn into his store.
But Zac stayed at the window. He stayed until the yellow, clanking plow came rumbling along to perform its glorious violence upon the perfect snowdrifts, and he stayed until the first car crept squeakily along the frozen street. He kept staring as other cars arrived to enact their elegant, five-cornered ballet and as the first shovelers began to clear sidewalks in front of houses where smoke rose straight up from the chimneys. And he kept on staring long after, because he just couldn’t tear himself away. Moreover, though he wasn’t aware of it himself, his left leg was not jiggling. A boy who, until two days ago, had never merely looked out a window for more than ten seconds at a time now found himself rooted to one spot, hardly daring to breathe lest he lose hold of …
He didn’t know.
But something in Zachary Sparks had changed.