Lightening Strikes Twice (I.P.)
The storm raged outside the office, rain pounding against the windows in a thousand fingers tapping to be let in from the cold. Lightening flashed and illuminated the car park where there was only Steve’s car because everyone else had gone home to loving families and the warmth of late night telly. There had been lightening on the night he’d killed his wife.
It was the graveyard shift for Steve. He’d read once that they used to watch graveyards at night in case they’d buried someone alive, so the term still stuck centuries later. Imagine sitting in a deserted graveyard with a full moon rising over crooked gravestones covered in weeds with only the dead for company. Steve could imagine that just well enough as he had sat next to the freshly dug grave in the woods behind his house, listening to Pam’s muffled cries from beneath. Thought she was dead. When you smash a person in the head with a hammer and see the gore dripping from it onto your clean beige kitchen tiles, you assumed that would’ve taken care of it.
Can’t even get murder right, Stevie. I told you to smash her head again, make sure you see the brain.
It was his dad’s voice, surfacing from the darkness swelling within. Had that chiding tone, the one he always used on his mum when she’d mess up. Mum was always messing up, normally when dad was drunk. But Pam had looked dead to Steve when he threw her in the hole and began to shovel the dirt over her. When her eyes flicked open and stared at him with wild terror, he’d jumped back in fear. She moaned out, tried to raise a hand through the dirt like a zombie rising from the grave. But she was weak, as good as dead already. So he’d continued piling the sodden dirt on top of her as rain lashed around him, watching it fall onto her glassy blue eyes, fall into her mouth. When he patted the earth with the shovel, he could still hear her. Soaked through, he fell back against a tree and listened as the thunder rolled in from the night, drowning Pam’s cries out. He’d counted the time between the bangs and the flashes. Dad had taught him that light travelled faster than the sound, so if you counted the gap between the flash and the thunder, you could work out how far the storm was.
Lightening tore through the air. Steve counted ten seconds and there was a rumble of thunder. For every five seconds, his Dad had told him, the storm was a mile away. His old man was both smart and wicked. When Pam was dying, the storm was two miles away.
“Steve!” Her cries were growing weaker, but he was surprised how clearly he heard his name screamed from beneath the dirt. A flash streaked through the air, lighting up the entire woodland for a second. Steve counted the seconds, got as far as eight before there as another rumble and the storm grew closer as Pam’s life drew further away from her. How long did it take to suffocate when you were buried alive with the dirt filling your throat?
There was a flash of light outside the office and it made Steve jump. He turned from the window as he tried to turn his mind from Pam. There were rows of computers stretching out before him in an office that was white and sterile like the hospitals he’d been in when he was younger. Troubled boy, they’d called him, but they’d be able to fix him. And so they had. His feet clicked across the tiles as he went to the servers where he had to back up the precious data stored on a hundred little hard drives. There was a risk of system failure in a storm so the backups had to be completed before a power outrage. The generator should kick in, but you never knew. Just maybe there was a fault and the lifeline to the computers would be severed. Just maybe there was no recent backup and when they pulled him in to ask how they’d lost millions in data, poor old Stevie would have to explain how he’d been watching the storm, too busy thinking about his dead wife.
The one he’d killed.
As he started the backup, there was another flash of lightening. No rumble, he thought. That meant the storm was over fifteen miles away because you couldn’t hear thunder from that distance. That was smart old dad again. Storm was probably moving away, unlike the night he’d buried Pam alive and it had drawn closer until there was a two second gap between flash and rumble. That was when Pam had finally gone quiet and checked out of the world. It was just as well, because the storm had moved right over head and the trees groaned and creaked in the wind, the rain slashing fresh scars of water across his cheeks. He’d trudged back to the house as the lightening struck the tree that stood over Pam’s grave, sending it crashing down over her. Burying her further. If Steve had lingered a moment longer, he’d have been fried for sure, another body out in the woods.
The computer’s drive clicked into action as a backup started. Steve looked up at the ghostly image of his reflection in the window and the lightening came again. This time, Steve counted up until he got to twelve and there was a distant rumble out in the night. Storm was growing closer. As he turned around to walk back down the computer room, the fluorescents flickered, threatening to plunge into darkness. He walked among the computers, unable to shake the feeling that he was in a morgue and walking amongst the dead. Felt like he was being watched and he didn’t like it. When the lights gave another flicker, he stopped, hoping they’d stay on. When they went out, Steve let the breath out he hadn’t realised he was holding. In a few moments, the back up generator would pick up and take over. In just a few seconds, there would be light again.
Lightening flashed, throwing cold light into the office. And he saw someone stood at the door to the computer room, a figure blocking his only exit. The office fell into darkness again and without thinking, Steve began to count the seconds.
Five, Mississippi, six, Mississippi, seven Mississippi.
He thought about the figure who had been stood at the door, wondered if someone had come back to do a little late night work and thought they’d have a little laugh at scaring Steve.
There was a rumble of thunder. Storm was closer, alright. “Hey, who’s that?” He tried to see through the darkness, but the curtain was too thick. A shiver of coldness ran down his spine. The hair on his arms stood up and prickled as though there was static. He didn’t like it one little bit. If there was a joker out there, he’d get the last laugh. Oh, yes, Stevie Long didn’t like to suffer fools, didn’t like to be poked fun at. Just like Pam had poked at him, continued on in that whiney voice until he’d snapped. He’d been fixing the car, smashing the stuck oil pump with a hammer and getting nowhere near to budging it loose. She was on at him about something, but couldn’t remember what. He’d tuned her out, listened to the roar of a waterfall in his mind. He sort of phased out for a moment, his mind going foggy. When he came back he found himself on top of Pam, bringing the hammer down on her head. The first blow had made a terrific cracking noise and he’d liked that.
Do it again, his dad said from somewhere really deep inside. So Steve had until he staggered back from her, dropping the hammer into a pool of blood. And the lightening had flashed outside, just like it did again now. And Steve saw the dark figure, halfway down across the office. It stood stiffly, shoulders at angles, head bent to the side as though studying Steve. When darkness came again, he counted the seconds after the flash, waiting for the rumble.
“Steve!” a muffled cry came from ahead. There was the sound of dragging feet, a raspy breathing that sounded like someone was choking. “Steve!”
The rumble came on five seconds. The storm was just a mile away and the dark, twisted figure was even closer. He held his hand out in front of him, tried to part the night. “Who is that?” he called out, hearing the tremor in his voice. The shuffling continued like a dead thing dragged itself towards him. He backed away, thumped into the edge of a desk.
Lightening flashed again and lit the entire office, revealing a woman covered in dirt. Her clothes were rags hanging over a skeletal body which the flesh clung uselessly to. Her feet were bare, dragging mud behind her all the way to the exit. Her head was tilted to the side, a hole in her left temple dripping black oil like blood onto the floor. Before the office went dark again, Steve saw her mouth open into a twisting snarl, spilling mud down her chin. In the dark, her voice came out in a strangled cry. “Stevie, you killed me!” She shuffled across the floor and he felt her breath somewhere right in front of him. “And now I’m back!”
This couldn’t be happening, he thought. Pam was dead, had been for the last year. He was dreaming, would wake up and find himself alone with the storm. He felt boney hands claw around his neck, beginning to squeeze. Lightening flashed again and he saw her cloudy eyes staring into his as she drew in close for a last, muddy kiss. They were plunged into darkness again and Steve didn’t think he’d come up again. But the lightening flashed and the rumble followed almost immediately. It was overhead as it had been when Pam had died exactly a year ago, Steve realised. He wept as he felt dirt in his throat. He spluttered and coughed, fell to the floor in a heap at the feet of the dead woman and he begged forgiveness. The storm began to pass overhead, moving out into the night. As Steve cried, he counted the gaps in the seconds until the storm had passed. The lights came back on in the office and Pam was gone. Only the muddy footprints remained, leading all the way to the door.
Whenever there was a thunder storm, Steve always counted the gaps between, waiting for it to move away and take his dead wife with it.