Yesterday’s weather was horrific for a lot of folks around here, including my brother-in-law Steve and his family. My niece’s house in Gordon County was damaged by high winds (tornado) and the power is out all over the place up around Adairsville and Calhoun. Our thoughts are with all those who are suffering.
We had our own close call. You see, Trouble came to visit our house late last night. For those of you who haven’t read Brambleman, Trouble is a myseterious fellow “not from around here” who has a strange affinity for lightning.
I’d just gone to bed, and I was looking out the window when I saw a flash of light across the sky. An instant later, the electrical feed to the house, which is right next to the bedroom window, popped out sparks. The electricity went off and there a BANG! sounded across the street.
The electricity came back on. I went outside to check and make sure the house hadn’t caught on fire. Everything seemed semi-normal. (Or was it paranormal?)
This morning, my computer won’t boot. It turned out that the lightning strike had burned out my surge protector. Which is a good thing; as you can deduce from reading this, the computer still works. Just have to get a new surge protector.
I couldn’t make coffee, either. Turns out the lightning strike had taken out two of my protected (ground fault) circuit breakers as well and tripped a third. Now I’m a DIY guy, but going into the circuit breaker box is above my pay grade, because, after all, that’s where Trouble likes to hang out.
So I had to call a high priest electrician. Fortunately, they make house calls. If a wizened old guy with stringy hair shows up, I’ll freak out. In any case, I’m taking all this as a sign that I need to get working on my next book.
If you haven’t met Trouble yet, here he is, a stranger in the rain.
His thought was punctuated by a flash that lit up the sky. As the lights went out, a loud boom rocked the diner. The guy in camouflage drawled, “What the hell?”
As the diner’s occupants murmured in concern, another bolt landed just behind the building with a blinding flash. A few seconds later, Charlie noticed a greenish-yellow glow through the rearmost side window—like some kind of radioactive fire.
The lights flickered back on. The rain let up.
His antagonists, apparently having short attention spans, refocused on their ham, eggs, and grits, so Charlie decided to take the opportunity to slip outside, check out the fire, and mosey off into the night, thereby avoiding the whupping he’d been promised. He slipped off his stool unnoticed as his antagonists grumbled and chewed.
Charlie stepped outside. He walked around the diner and saw something on fire behind the building. Whoa. Make that someone. Fighting panic, he ripped off his soaking wet bomber jacket and tossed it over the prone figure, putting out the flames and raising a cloud of acrid, funky-smelling smoke and steam. Whew.
The poor wretch lay motionless. Charlie picked up his coat and saw a six-inch-wide hole in the back of the victim’s black leather jacket. Sure that nobody could survive a direct hit like that, Charlie reached for his cellphone … which he’d left at the house. Damn it. He’d have to go back inside and use the pay phone to call 911, which meant facing those assholes.
He debated the issue for a moment, looking back at the diner, then into the night. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw signs of life. The victim’s fingers drummed the concrete. Shave and a haircut, two bits. The body folded in on itself, fetus-like, and then jackknifed open with alarming speed. Charlie watched in amazement as the once-dead creature rolled over on his back and started to rise, yawning and stretching as he did so. His eyes fluttered open, showing rolled-up whites. Charlie yelped in horror at the zombie-thing, now standing in a crouch.
“Do not be afraid. I’m here to help,” the fellow said in a raspy voice crackling with static.
“I’m not afraid,” Charlie claimed as a deep chill swept through his body. “Just curious.”
The guy he’d given up for dead held out his arms as if to suppress applause, then coughed out smoke. Shaking his head, he wavered unsteadily on his feet. He was short, with long, unkempt, iron-gray hair, and looked old beyond his time, like a wizened drug freak, scrawny old biker—or jazz trumpeter Chet Baker near the end of his days. He removed his jacket and examined the hole, which was bordered by a circular scorch mark. He sniffed it, said a rueful goodbye, and tossed the garment over his back into the Dumpster.
The stranger staggered around briefly but wouldn’t let Charlie touch him, contorting to avoid a helping hand—as if he was an extraordinarily clumsy Neo dodging bullets in The Matrix. “You do not want a piece of me,” he warned. “Not when I’m fully charged.”
Charlie caught a whiff of the fellow and nearly gagged at the stink of homelessness—and something worse. The lightning must have triggered multiple excretory functions, yielding a horribly vile stench that could knock out a skunk at thirty paces.
As he stood with mouth agape, the stranger stared at Charlie with coal-black eyes. “What do you want, a friggin’ wish for saving me?” He broke out cackling. “Go ahead. Make my day.”
Charlie, nonplussed, managed to say, “I should call 911 and get help.”
The stranger waved off the idea. “No cops. We’ll handle this ourselves. That’s the rule.”
Obviously, the guy’s brain was fried. Charlie shook his head. “I’m confused. Didn’t you—”
“Walk here? Yeah. ” He pointed toward the Interstate. “From there. Nearly had a wreck. Truck driver saw some fool asshole about to jump off the bridge and lost control of his vehicle. My job to come in and save the guy. Trucker, that is. Used all my power.”
He looked at Charlie knowingly, but the fool asshole had no response to that.
“So I was looking for food,” the stranger continued. “But it takes days to build up energy that way. Mighty inefficient. Just when I’m feeling low—voltage, that is—I get myself a charge, and I’m good to go. Circuit breaker boxes work too, but you rarely get useful instructions from ’em. Less natural, I guess you’d say. Plus, you don’t want to do what the power company tells you, do you?” He studied Charlie’s blank face. “Well, maybe you do. I don’t.”
The rain started coming down harder. Charlie shook his head and said, “Let’s get you out of the weather.”
“Let’s get me out of this weather,” the stranger agreed.
“What I can’t get over is, is … how the hell did you survive?”
“Two things. Survival is never the issue for me.”
Charlie waited, but there was no second thing coming. “OK,” he said. “I’ll buy you a cup of coffee. If they’ll serve us, that is.” He bent down and picked up his jacket, which now smelled of smoke and homelessness in addition to already being tattered, with a busted zipper. He tossed it in the Dumpster to keep the other jacket company and gestured for the stranger to follow.
The old fellow started walking. It appeared to be a new experience for him—he looked like a tightrope walker with cerebral palsy. Horrible to behold. Charlie stepped toward him, but the stranger waved off his helping hand, causing Charlie’s hair to stand on end. By the time they reached the diner entrance, the stranger had adapted to this mode of transportation, more or less.
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