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Authors: Laura Pritchett

Red Lightning

RED LIGHTNING

Copyright © 2015 Laura Prichett

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Pritchett, Laura, 1971-

Red lightning: a novel / Laura Pritchett.

pages; cm

1. Single mothers—Fiction. 2. Families—Colorado—Fiction. 3. Drug traffic—Colorado—Fiction. 4. Colorado--Emigration and immigration—Fiction. 5. Domestic fiction. I. Title.

PS3616.R58R43 2015

813'.6—dc23

2014048924

Cover design by Debbie Berne

Interior design by Domini Dragoone

Counterpoint Press

2560 Ninth Street, Suite 318

Berkeley, CA 94710

www.counterpointpress.com

Distributed by Publishers Group West

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

e-book ISBN 978-1-61902-641-4

DEDICATED TO

Jake and Eliana

“I felt the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains . . . the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.”

– Willa Cather,
My Ántonia

“This end won't summarize our forever. Some things can be fixed by fire, some not. Dearheart, already we're air.”

— Dean Young, “Elemental”

Contents

Part I: Wind

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Part II: Water

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Part III: Fire

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Part IV: Air

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Part V: Earth

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Acknowledgments

PART I

Wind

Chapter One

What would be the point in confessing a sin for which you had guilt
but no real remorse? Bless me, universe, for I have sinned (but I'd do it again in a heartbeat).

*

With Libby I stand a miniscule chance of forgiveness. She looks
exactly like I thought she would, too, standing in front of the school with yellow cottonwood leaves dripping down from their treebranch faucets. Exactly ten years older since I saw her last, exactly like a thirty-year-old small-town woman should look, coarse brown hair pulled back in a raggedy ponytail, an oversized white T-shirt and cheapbrand jeans and cheaperbrand white tennis shoes. I watch her from across the parking lot as she chats with a kid who must be my daughter outside the same redbrick squarebox podunk crappy school we went to. A crow squawks, and the blue sky squawks in return. HOME OF THE PIRATES flags flap, and oh, Libby, my sweet sister, you've never seen the ocean, you've never taken something
that was unrightfully yours, you've never had to go running across countries. You've put on blinders so as to sweetly sail through the suffering this world offers.

Libby turns in my direction, thinking that, from the corner of her eye, down the street from the school, holykamoly, there's someone who resembles Tess, her good-looking-snarky-trouble-making sister, the sister she hasn't seen for ten years! but no, impossible, this person is too horrible to be her sister, and yet, and yet . . . could it be? Is it a look-alike? Her imagination?

I look past Libby at the kid. Amber. Broad brushstrokes from here. Barrette pulling back a twist of brown hair. Turquoise sweatshirt, red backpack. Senses, perhaps, her mother's intake of breath, turns to stare at me too. In this instant, Libby knows that she could say, “Why, look! See over there? That's your mother, or at least the woman who gave birth to you, whom we haven't seen since, but
she's
not looking like we'd expect, now is she?” But instead she says something along the lines of “Have a good day, dearheart,” and gives the kid a nudge, and Amber takes off skipping directly up to a group of ponytailed-backpack-wearing-girls, her twist of hair already breaking loose. Libby turns and stands looking at me across the cracked parking lot and across the cracked years, even after the bell rings and the children's squeals and laughter retreat inside the building and the three yellow swings are left swinging, empty of their energy.

I offer a small wave of the hand. Such a small movement with such potential, and now each of us standing in the new silence, staring at and considering the considerable space that separates us, including a hundred feet and ten years and a thousand different emotions.

Who will take the first step forward?

A gust pelts roadway dirt into my face, but I don't duck and I don't blink. I shift my weight from one foot to the other, push my thumbs
into my stomach to stop the ache, hear myself moan a soft surprised sorrow. Still, she doesn't move.

So I do. I take the first step toward her with a
Please don't turn and go
being whispered by every cell of my aching-storming body.

Chapter Two

Bravery is another name for stupidity. If someone knew how difficult
something was going to be at the onset, chances are she'd never do it. Brave people are stupid people, and somewhere deep inside, they know and embrace this fact.

Pirates: fighting on a liquid substance that can kill you. Stupid or brave?

Pollos
: deciding to cross a dry landscape that can kill you. Stupid or brave?

Love: putting your dusty heart in the care of another. That, too, can kill you.

Motherhood: Libby never would have offered to keep my infant ten years ago had she known the truth back then, which is that the world only pays lip service to the task of parenting. Even kidless me can see that no one has any idea what she is really in for, how she will be broken and smashed.

I walk up to her. My arms reach out on their own; my forehead ducks; I want to plow into her arms, push my head into her chest, a lastditch effort for a redemptive humanhold, but I draw myself up at
the last second. Get my spine straight. Her forgiveness is not an assumption I should make. So instead I say, “I didn't stick around because I didn't want to see the results of your stupidity-slash-bravery,” and when I see how the sight of me is registering wild on her face, I add, “I've learned one thing in my time, Libby. Well, a few things. But one thing I've learned for sure. I was working this theory out on the bus.” I pull a crumpled napkin out of my pocket. The ink has bled into the fibers, and it takes me a moment to make out the words. I have to squint and look off into the sky and cottonwoods and the parking lot before I can return to the napkin. “People protect themselves by withholding their love.” I stop here and look at my sister's deepdark shiny doebrown eyes and hold them for a heartbeat. She is still taking me in, gutpunched, and I look back down at my napkin so that the moment can pass unnoticed. “So the thing is, these people think they're being brave and stoic. But of course, they're just cowards. And then what happens is that their love is no longer sought. Everyone forgets they're alive. There's no advantage in rationing it, you see. Rationing emotions and staying quiet kills you. You think you're being brave, but really you're just being stupid.” I cram the napkin back in my pocket. “I could die right now, and no one would notice.” I stretch my neck one way, then the other, and again, until I hear bones pop. The chain clinks against the flagpole, the pirate flag snaps.

Libby bites a dry fleck of skin from her lip. Now that she's close up, I can see the details. She is still average in her averageness. Height, weight, Kmart-clothes mediocrity. Hair she doesn't dye, strands of white peppered at the very top. Her eyes with no makeup, richbrown as mine and not as striking, but temporarily memorable in the way they look stunned.

“Oh, Tess.” She backs up, her eyes watering. “What happened to you? Do you need a doctor? Your cheek.” She puts out her hand, nearly touches my grated face, puts her hand back down. “Oh, Tess.”

I clear my throat, look off to the sky behind her. “I guess I finally
got worn out.” My eyes follow a single yellow leaf dance down to the earth. “Like that pirate flag up there, which is pretty tattered. It needs replacing. Why would someone pick pirates to be the mascot of a school in the middle of eastern Colorado?”

“Oh, Tess. Really? It's you? Oh, it is you. Let me take you to the clinic—”

                
And here Tess hugs herself tighttight.

                
Tess knows she smells badbad. Blood and vomit and beer

                
and animal body.

                
Tess wants to howl in a wild voice.

                
Howl, Tess, howl! Tess should tell her sister that she's

                
gone feralwild.

                
Is suffocating in her ribcage and in her heartbone.

                
Tess needs a compass.

                
North, south, east, west,

                
AND a moral compass, please.

I crack my neck again. Look at the trees dripping their leaves. Notice the particular hues of yellow, the movement of each individual leaf in the mass of the tree. “I guess I rationed my love. I thought maybe I could give the other path a try. I'm so sorry. I can't stand up anymore.” I hear my voice say it, feel my knees buckle, and then I am sitting on the cement sidewalk, fingering the cracks, fiddling with the crumbles. The cool has left the earth all in one moment, and I look around at this new day, now hotter and harder.

She's digging for a cell phone, so I say, “No, no doctor. Please. That's not what I need.”

Libby considers this. Considers the money, the fact I might bolt, that I will have no papers, that a doctor and forms will send me into a world I cannot visit. She puts her phone away. “You could just come to work with me. I'm a nurse.”

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