by Marian Allen
Phillida Brown, teacher of 9th-grade English, made a face at her dumpy, rumpled reflection in the classroom window. The parking lot was empty, all the students were tucked dryly into cars or onto buses, and NOW the clouds turned afternoon into evening, and NOW lightning flared so thickly the thunder-rumbles got mixed up with one another. Philly cringed at every flash, every crash.
“Perfect ending to a perfect day.” The kids, as if they had picked up energy from the approaching storm, had been barely controllable. Four more weeks, and I’m out of here. Early retirement, here I come. She was more than ready, after twenty frugal maiden years of diagramming sentences and holding the geniuses of literature up to the disinterest of the pitiless young. Twenty years, she had lived for quiet evenings, for summers devoted to her nieces and nephews, for the few kids each year who suddenly lit up inside – transformed, in the blink of an eye, by something in class that struck sparks off their brains.
She stumped into the hall, glad to escape to its fluorescent windowlessness. She snapped off the light and closed the door. The thunder was muffled here, and the lightning was reduced to small, regularly-spaced, square explosions filtered through the little glass panels set in the classrooms’ doors.
She jumped. “Edward.”
He stepped from the darkened classroom next to hers, looking as crisp and unruffled now as he had in the morning. His tie was still snug, his shirt buttoned, his cuffs buttoned, his jacket buttoned. Not a salt-and-pepper hair out of place. He taught science, and his name was Edward Plaistow. The kids called him “Mister Plastic”.
Edward pulled his door shut. “Lovely storm!”
“If you like them.”
He raised his eyebrows and – literally – looked down his nose at her. Philly felt, as she still did after years of conversations with him, trapped in one of those dreams where you’re in a school you don’t know, being asked for homework you haven’t done, by a teacher you don’t remember.
This is ridiculous! I’m forty-two years old! I’m about to retire! She lifted a defiant face and snapped, “I don’t like storms.”
“I can see that. I, on the other hand, find them quite bracing.”
He had probably never been caught out in a storm as sudden and violent as this one was. He probably didn’t know how it felt to be so close to a lightning strike that the metal eyelets on your sneakers scorched the canvas around them.
She had been ten, setting up a picnic on the hill behind the house. Momma had just stepped out onto the porch, carrying a thermos of sweet tea, and Poppa had followed her, bent over the picnic basket, pretending it was almost too heavy to hold. The sky had darkened between the time she left the house and the time they did, and now the wind whipped the blanket from the ground into the nearby oak, scattering plastic plates and flatware in all directions. She jumped up, just as rain broke from the clouds in floods and, with no preliminaries, the oak burst open and one of its roots erupted. One second, she had been laughing. The next, she had been stunned, light-blinded, unable to move. Poppa had run up and dragged her into the house, his bellowing fear for her more harrowing than the strike.
Edward lifted an arm and, astoundingly, burst into song:
“Volcanoes have a splendour that is grim,
And earthquakes only terrify the dolts!
But to him who’s scientific,
There is nothing that’s terrific
In the falling of a flight of thunderbolts!”
When she only gaped at him, he said, “Now you’re supposed to say, ‘Yes, in spite of all my meekness,/If I have a little weakness,/It’s a passion for a flight of thunderbo-olts!’ …Gilbert and Sullivan. The Mikado. It’s an opera. A comic opera.”
How many years had she known him? Fifteen? He had been here when she transferred to be closer to her apartment…. Yes, fifteen years. And she had never known he liked opera. Never known he could – or would – sing.
“I know the piece,” she said at last. “I know the song. I just don’t agree with it. In spite of all my meekness, if I have a little weakness, it’s a hatred for a flight of thunderbolts.”
“Ha, ha,” he said, but she knew that was the way he actually laughed, as if he had taught himself how by reading it in a book. “Ha, ha. Rather clever, turning it around like that. Very good.”
The rumbling outside seemed to hold its breath, but then came a crash so tremendous it seemed to come at them from behind every closed door and down from the ceiling. The lights went out. The hall went black.
“Oh! Oh!” Philly reached for the only possible comfort around: Mister Plastic. Her hands slapped against his lapels and gripped them.
Then his arms were around her, and she was pressed close against him, her head nestled between his shoulder and his lowered face. He smelled of Old Spice after-shave and laundry starch. She felt his breath on her ear.
Light blazed through the windows in the classroom doors, and thunder cracked and rolled. Philly squeaked. Edward snugged her closer, one hand on her head, his palm shielding her ear, other hand on her back, issuing gently reassuring pats.
The next round of thunder, not quite ear-splitting, lagged behind the lightning. The next was tardier and more muffled.
Philly relaxed, though she kept her grip on Edward’s lapels. “You sang!”
She felt his chuckle through the warm skin of his throat.
“I don’t know what got into me. It must have been the storm.”
The emergency lights came on, dim and slightly blue.
Edward cocked his head toward the ceiling. “I think the worst of the electrical storm is past, but it sounds like it’s raining buckets.”
“We could wait it out in the lobby. Get some milk and cookies from the vending machines. Watch the rain.”
So they sat on a bench painted the school colors, hand in hand and side by side. Fused by lightning. Lives changed forever. Just like that.
WRITING PROMPT: This story came out of an exercise wherein one writes about two characters, one of whom loves the weather/climate and one of whom hates it. So do that.